Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
“Breakfast is served.”
These three words mean a lot to the more than 80 individuals who come to St. Thomas Episcopal Church each weekday during the summer and on Saturday mornings the rest of the year to get a free breakfast and someone to talk to.
The free morning meal was started by Father Brian Coleman, the former Rector at St. Thomas
. In 2008, he said that no one should need a program like this. Since he could see that the need was there, the oatmeal, pancakes, sausage, cereals, juice, and milk continued to be served free of charge to anyone who walks through the church’s doors.
Members of both Battle Creek’s Rotary Clubs volunteer for St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program.
Now, five years later, little has changed except for the individuals who seek out the breakfast, says Roy Hillman, Kitchen Manager for the Breakfast program.
The program initially was focused on serving children from poorer families who received free or reduced meals at school, Hillman says.
“When school was out, those kids don’t necessarily get any meals,” he says. “That was the idea behind the program. Being a downtown church we just started doing this Monday through Friday during the 13 weeks that school was out.”
These days, there aren’t a lot of children, although Hillman says on a recent Thursday three families with two and three kids each did come in. He says they were among 110 people who received breakfast that day and had anticipated 50 percent more because it was the end of the month when the government assistance money they receive runs out.
A customer pours syrup onto his pancakes at St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program.
He estimates that about 80 percent of the diners are men with the average age being, some of whom are retirees who come in to meet up with each other and have a cup of coffee or a full breakfast.
Five or six years ago, Hillman says Coleman decided to expand the program beyond its focus on children because of the need he was seeing in the community.
While the word “free” may lead some to believe that the program is only open to low-income individuals and families, it is available to anyone, Hillman says. Some of these people work at downtown restaurants and come in because the 8:30 a.m. start fits well with their schedules and others live in housing within walking distance to the church.
The primary populations being served by the program are people living in poverty or people who don’t have permanent housing, says Reverend Trish Harris, St. Thomas’ Deacon. For people who are struggling with either and don’t have enough money to make a nutritious breakfast or don’t have a home, she says there are a couple of shelters like The Haven of Rest Ministries
or the SHARE Center
, a daytime drop-in shelter.
Free breakfasts are served during summer weekdays at the St. Thomas Parish hall.
“Some of these individuals can’t stay at a shelter for a variety of reasons,” Harris says. “If they don’t have money or another place to go to get food, they can come to us. We are feeding people who are really vulnerable in our community.”
Hillman says some people sit by themselves and some in groups.
“A few of them seem to know everybody. They’re a community. It’s a good meal for a really reasonable price,” he jokingly says. "Some of the people have been coming for absolutely as long as I can remember.”
Mary Bourgeois, a member at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, is a volunteer for their breakfast program.
“I’ve talked to a lot of them several times and I’m not sure how much they need the meal or if it’s more the community feel of the meal. Some of them need to get out of their little existence and maybe it’s all they can afford and it gives them a reason to get up and get dressed and walk to St. Tom’s.”
He says there are few resources for the unhoused in Battle Creek and worries about Veterans and older men who aren’t part of any group.
“It’s heartbreaking knowing their situation and you wonder how much water you’re going to let over the dam if you tried to do more. There definitely is that person coming to looking for more than we can give to them,” Hillman says.
Rotary volunteer Lisa Ridgeway serves oatmeal at St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program.Volunteer Rock Kadlub, empties sausages Into a crock pot for serving, at St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program.
Knowing the challenges his clients already are facing, he and the volunteers cooking and serving the breakfast will open the doors early and stay a bit past the 10 a.m. closing time if there is inclement weather or they want to continue a conversation.
The volunteers are with other area churches, including First United Methodist and First Presbyterian in the city’s downtown, or organizations, including the Rotary Club of Battle Creek and the Calhoun County Democratic Party (CCDP). Their willingness to pitch in lessens the program’s dependency on members of St. Thomas, Harris says.
“The really big thing is that the community-at-large and even Calhoun County has come to be a part of it all. As an entire group, we are only responsible for a couple of weeks during the summer,” she says. “We’re responsible for funding the program and the kitchen, but we have so many volunteers from other churches and organizations and that’s a really cool thing.”
Funding to support the Breakfast program comes primarily from St. Thomas’ congregation and smaller organizations like Women of Impact
, in addition to some Senior Millage funding because of the older population served. Cereal is donated by members of the church who are retirees of Post and Kellogg’s.
Rotary volunteer Jill Anderson scraps food from plates at St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program.
The remainder of what appears on the serving tables is purchased.
“We get real good support from churches and organizations. Our church is getting elderly and low on numbers, but financial support from our members isn’t an issue,” Hillman says.
He is in charge of figuring out how much food and drinks to prepare and says it’s often based on prior numbers and a fair amount of guesswork.
“That’s kind of my job,” he says. “Friday is the only day I have to make a good guess. If we cook too many pancakes on Monday, we can serve them again on Wednesday, same with eggs. If we have too many on Tuesday, we can serve them on Thursday.”
The stock of food is always rotated and the church bought enough to see the program through half of the summer before summer began.
From Kellogg employee to kitchen manager
Shortly after Hillman retired from Kellogg’s, a friend of his who happened to be the kitchen manager at the time talked him into taking classes and a test to get his kitchen manager certification. He says he’s stuck with it ever since then and in two years will have the longest unbroken record in that job.
Sausages for every taste are served at St. Thomas Episcopal Church’s breakfast program
“I like doing the work. I don’t like being on committees,” Hillman says.
He says volunteer support is very important and one of the reasons that he enjoys what he does.
“Some groups don’t need a kitchen manager and several groups bring a certified kitchen manager with them. They tell their volunteers what to do in the kitchen and dining room which means I can spend more time with clients and doing things in the church that need doing,” Hillman says. “The volunteers do all of the cooking.”
Besides volunteer groups, clients of the Breakfast program often help out.
“Originally, we had two people, Nate and Doc. They came virtually all the time and did the dirty dish table,” Hillman says. “Because they were part of the community, they got clientele scraping their own plates and getting the food and garbage where it needed to go. They did a better job than other people because they were part of this community and other clients listened to them.”
For his part, he says his favorite job is washing the dishes, a chore he’d gladly do every day. But he says all of the jobs are pretty rewarding.
Breakfast is served during the summer months at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
“Just doing it right is real rewarding, guessing the amount of food and getting it cooked on time,” Hillman says. “I’d like to tweak it and make it better. I’d like to have two volunteers each week who’ve got the same history with the program and step up the food variety to where it was before COVID.”
Harris says the Breakfast program creates an array of emotions for her.
“It’s lovely to see people and be in community with them and it’s heartbreaking on some level to know there are people in need of a hot breakfast,” she says. “Our numbers have been in the hundreds for the last couple of weeks. Over 100 people every single day, it’s a lot to think about, people going hungry without this program.”
Hillman says this is what keeps him going and he often asks himself: “If I don’t do it, who will?”
“It’s just like anything you do. Doing it right and enjoying what I’m doing is what brings me the most joy. I want to finish it,” he says. “If you’re looking for something in your life that’s engaging and fulfilling, the Breakfast program is the community you fit into.”