RICHARD Okon says life was a battle before he discovered Baptist Care at Wallsend.
Single and living on an aged pension at Elermore Vale, Mr Okon struggled with both the cost of living and a lack of regular social interaction.
But for the past 12 months, the 69-year-old has eaten a hot meal at the Wallsend Community Centre twice a week as part of a food relief program for low-income earners.
He says he is ‘‘yet to come across a bad meal’’ and has made a group of friends he regularly meets and eats with.
On Thursday, Mr Okon sat down to eat the service’s 25,000th meal – a plate of homemade rissoles, baked vegetables and gravy. He received the milestone meal in front of about 80 others who regularly stop in for a hot lunch.
‘‘It was a bit of a surprise, I didn’t expect that when I walked in the door,’’ he said.
‘‘I come here every Monday and Thursday and I’ve made my own group of friends.
‘‘I’ve been coming here 12 months and I know just about everyone by sight.
‘‘It’s great to have a service like this available.
‘‘Before I came here it was a battle. This has just made it a lot easier.’’
Mr Okon says he regularly gets bread and other supplies from the centre’s low-cost food support store. This gives vulnerable and disadvantaged people access to much needed food services, including low-cost groceries and crisis food packs.
It is estimated one in 10 Hunter residents this year will need some form of food relief. Wallsend Community Centre manager Craig Budden said the service was as much about serving a meal as it was about providing a safe and welcoming place for social interaction.
‘‘We did a survey and there is a good percentage of people who will miss a meal during the week,’’ Mr Budden said.
‘‘There is some that will only have a wholesome or full meal when they come here, so they are missing out on getting the nutrition they need.
‘‘Then there are those that don’t necessarily need a meal, they really just need that social inclusion because otherwise they will stay at home.
‘‘We open at 9.30am and a number of people will come here at 9.30am and stay right through until after 1pm.’’
As well as the $2 hot lunches, the centre provides a community space for people to socialise, case workers and a kitchenette with free breakfast.