Volunteer group serving free meals in Morro Bay gets fees waived

Morro Bay
Morro Bay jmellom@thetribunenews.com

To help serve a community with more than 1,200 impoverished residents, Morro Bay’s City Council has approved a temporary fee waiver for a local group serving a free weekly meal at the city’s Veterans Memorial Building.

The Jan. 28 decision covers an estimated $2,000 in city rental fees for the building through June 30.

The Morro Bay Food Group, a subcommittee of the volunteer-based Estero Bay Alliance for Care, puts on the weekly community meal program from 5 to 6 p.m. Mondays at the Veterans Memorial Building at 209 Surf St.

The alliance group is made up of local church members and community volunteers.

The group served eight people in its first week in January and about 30 people last week with the expectations that more will attend as the word continues to get out.

The group had received an anonymous donation to cover initial rental costs. But the council waived the fees retroactively so the donation may be used toward future costs.

Morro Bay’s population includes nearly 1,285 residents who live below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

About 51 percent of students at Morro Bay’s Del Mar Elementary School and approximately 41 percent at Morro Bay High School are deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged, said Valerie Harrigan, an executive assistant for education services with the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are defined by the California Department of Education as those who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch or whose parents haven’t received a high school diploma.

The alliance’s mission is to serve needy people through outreach, education and liaisons with appropriate agencies.

The all-volunteer network helps residents by collecting donations for basic living needs, including clothing, toiletries and household items such as microwaves and toasters.

And the group provides a resource list for health care and housing needs.

“I feel like it’s a real calling,” said volunteer Nancy Castle, who lobbied the council for the fee waiver. “It’s a solution-oriented program. For people with a fixed income, many are finding they can’t make it through the month before they run out of money.”

The volunteers had been serving hot meals at Morro Bay’s Lila Keiser Park for the past couple of years. The indoor location will provide cover in wet weather and offer a better set-up with a kitchen and assembly room.

The alliance is looking for other indoor locations to serve meals on other nights of the week, said Bonnie Jones, one of its coordinators.

The Monday high-protein meals are cooked by volunteers from St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, Rock Harbor Christian Fellowship, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and the non-religious Circle of Friends.

Meals have included pot roast, salad, carrots, string beans, corn, mashed potatoes and desserts.

“We’ve gotten to know people’s names,” said volunteer Bonnie Jones. “The meals have a real community feel.”

Participants have a variety of living situations, some staying in tents, cars or creekbeds. Others are low-income seniors and residents simply trying to make ends meet.

Joseph Woods, the city’s recreation and parks director, said that costs to the city will need to be reassessed by the council before the next fiscal cycle.

The city had considering waiving fees for a year, but Mayor Jamie Irons recommended the council consider requests from other charitable causes before making a determination and the council agreed upon a six-month waiver.

Representatives from the Morro Bay Food Group said they’d keep costs down by using the building’s oven for a limited amount of time and reducing use of electricity whenever possible.

“On the North Coast, we tend to be a little isolated in terms of services,” said Councilman Noah Smukler. “I’m happy we’ve seen this happen from a concept to action. We’ll be looking into where to go from here to make sure it’s working for everyone.”