For 20 years, churches and volunteers have served nutritious meals to people on Bay City's West Side

Since 2003, volunteers have cooked and served hot, nutritious, and free meals to thousands of people inside churches on Bay City’s West Side.

Now, as the Bay City Food of Faith-West program approaches its 20th anniversary, demand for the meals has never been greater.

In 2020, Bay City Food of Faith-West served about 5,500 meals, says Judy Miller, who has coordinated the program since the beginning. That number rose to 8,000 meals in 2021 and to 10,250 meals in 2022.

Miller kept logs of how many people were served in the years before 2020, but it’s hard to compare them to today’s numbers. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers counted the number of people who walked in, sat down, and enjoyed a hot meal inside Westminster Presbyterian, 103 E. Midland St., or Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church, 501 Catherine St.

“We’d give seconds or thirds, if we had enough,” Miller says.

Organizers need volunteers for five different weekends in 2023. Veterans of the program are willing to help newcomers plan and execute the meals. (Photo courtesy of Bay City Food of Faith-West)When COVID-19 restrictions forced a temporary end to in-person dining, the Food of Faith program started offering meals in take-out containers. Instead of counting people served, they counted the number of meals.

No matter how you quantify the program, it’s clear that people still need the food.

Miller says they don’t ask any questions about income or what brings people to the program. Instead, volunteers just ask how many meals are needed.

Since 2020, Bay City Food of Faith-West has served take-out meals to people who drive into the Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church parking lot. (Photo courtesy of Bay City Food of Faith-West)It all began in 2003 when representatives from three west Side churches – Messiah Lutheran, St. Albans, and Westminster Presbyterian – happened to sit together at a meeting for Food of Faith.

At the time, Food of Faith meals were served only at Trinity Episcopal Church at 815 N. Grant St. on Bay City’s East Side. Churches from all over the community took turns preparing the meals.

“We looked around and thought ‘You know, if we’re serving this many people and we have this many churches who are willing to work, maybe there’s room for a second program on the West Side of town.’ ”

That first year, the three churches committed to providing meals during Lent. Although all three churches participated, each meal was served at Messiah Lutheran Church.

“We had that nice, confined time as a trial,” Miller says. “If it worked, we’d keep going. And, well, we’re still going.”

Meals range from simple to complex. Several different organizations often donate food for the program. (Photo courtesy of Bay City Food of Faith-West)Since that first year, the program has expanded. At one time, meals were served at Messiah some weeks and at Westminster others. Today, meals come exclusively from Messiah because the parking lot works better for people picking up the to-go meals.

While Miller has been at most of the meals served over the life of the program, many of the other volunteer have changed.

Churches that backed the program in its early years have closed or moved on to support different ministries. At one point, students from high schools helped serve food to earn the volunteer hours needed for graduation. Judges allow Food of Faith volunteering to count for court-ordered community service.

Today, some churches continue to support the program, but so have volunteer groups not affiliated with churches. Even casual groups of friends have banded together to shop for food, cook meals, and serve them.

“With takeout meals, we’re using fewer volunteers, which is a good thing because it’s getting harder to get volunteers,” Miller says.

Serving takeout meals means fewer dishes to wash at the end and fewer people needed to take food to tables. “You needed people to do the serving and do all the dishes in addition to preparing and dishing up the meals. It was a lot more work and took a lot more time.”

There are losses with the new system, though.

“There are things we really miss about serving in person,” she says. “We miss the fellowship. We would celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and births and deaths. We don’t get to do that anymore.”

For holidays, volunteers often start prepping the meals early in the morning. Local restaurants and organizations such as Hidden Harvest often donate food for the program. (Photo courtesy of Bay City Food of Faith-West)While restrictions on indoor gatherings are largely gone, Miller says the program may have grown too large to return to indoor dining.

“Now the issue is we’re serving so many more people, we can’t seat that many people inside. We don’t have the space to make it work,” she says. “Is it better to serve more people or to reinstate that fellowship? Right now, we’re going with serving more people.”

Another change in recent years is an increase in donated food. Miller now sees food donations from Hidden Harvest, area farmers, and local restaurants. She laughs remembering how 150 pounds of raw potatoes were donated for a turkey dinner. Fortunately, five people came to peel, cook, and mash the potatoes.

“We do have exceptional volunteers,” she says. “We would be nowhere without these volunteers. I can’t say enough about how appreciated they are.”

She adds that many groups plan, prepare, and serve high-quality meals in a fraction of the time it takes to peel 150 pounds of potatoes.

When new groups ask about the program, Miller says she has people who can help. Recently when St. Catherine of Siena Parish, 2956 E North Union Road, asked about the program, Miller helped plan the menu and do the grocery shopping.

“They didn’t want to have to be responsible for planning the meal, so I did it for her. I’ve got people who will do that part when churches run into that problem,” she says.

Miller says the donated food also helps defray the cost of the program for the volunteers who offer to take responsibility for a meal. That means even smaller groups can help with the program.

“Originally, the churches did all the financing,” Miller says. “With this partnership with Hidden Harvest, we’ve got an awful lot of food that’s coming from there.”

For example, in January when it was Messiah’s turn to cook, Miller says she spent less than $100 on enough food for 280 meals. Hidden Harvest donated the bulk of the food on that day.

In 2023, 11 churches from all different denominations are part of the program. Non-religious groups also have stepped up for the program. Still, Miller says she’s looking for groups to volunteer for five weeks in 2023.

“For the first time, I’ve got a schedule with five open weeks,” Miller says. “That is a little bit scary.”

If you can help, contact Miller. She says the entire service, from preparation to clean-up, can be completed with as few as six people in under four hours. Most volunteers arrive around 2 p.m. to begin preparing food. People start arriving to pick up the meals between 4:30 and 5 p.m. By about 5:30 p.m., the only thing left to do is take out the garbage.

Miller says the program has strong partners in the community and that’s good since need may rise in the coming months.

“One thing that’s concerning me just a touch is there was an increase in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits because of COVID. That ends in February. Come March, people are going back to their regular SNAP benefits, but I don’t know how many more people we’re going to be able to accommodate,” she says.

Other agencies in the community are providing food for people in the area. To find an organization that can help you, call 211 Northeast Michigan. That agency can refer people to volunteers and agencies to help.
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at