Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
A free breakfast program is now in its eighth year of operation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church
in Battle Creek, but Father Brian Coleman, the church’s Rector, says in this day and age no one should have need of this program.
“In 2018 everyone should have enough to eat. They should have resources to provide for their needs,” Coleman says.
Since the need remains, the oatmeal, pancakes, sausage, cereals, juice, and milk continues to be served free of charge to anyone who walks through the church’s doors. During the summer months, St. Tom’s Community Breakfast program operates Monday through Friday. The rest of the year, breakfast is served on Saturday mornings.
“In the summers kids are food insecure and they go without because they’re not in school and we thought that providing breakfast in the summertime could help bridge the gap,” Coleman says. “The first year we did just Tuesday and Thursday and the next summer we went to Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the next year we went Monday through Friday.”
The program began as a way to make sure children had a daily meal during the summers and about 25 percent of the 10,000 individuals served annually are children, some of whom come in on their own. The remainder are adults, some of whom are parents or grandparents of those children.
Coleman surmises that the majority of those served are from the area, but he has no way of knowing because of a “no questions asked” policy.
“We try to keep a count and the food bank wants us to count the different genders and rough age groups, so we do the best we can with that,” he says. “We don’t ask them to sign in or answer questions.”
The meals are prepared, cooked, and served by volunteer groups of between 10 and 15 people. Some of them are members of St. Tom’s and others are with other churches, organizations, or service groups in the community. These volunteers gather at 7 a.m. and the doors open at 8:30 a.m., earlier if the weather is not good.
“I wish we could do more. We sometimes struggle with (getting) volunteers,” Coleman says. “It’s a pretty taxing program in terms of staffing, but we always manage to pull it off.”
But, it’s not just about breakfast anymore. Volunteers also try to address other needs and the program itself gives participants an opportunity to interact with others, pray with church leaders, and access to transportation.
“It has grown over the years so that we have other programs affiliated with the breakfast program,” Coleman says. “We have a nurse’s station once a week. We have a children’s library and a school supplies closet that’s developed. We also have a small food pantry at the church that’s grown out of that.”
A small volunteer crew also put together a music program for children to participate in during the summer. They meet twice a week and perform in a concert at the end of the summer breakfast program which began after a group of church members parted ways with a meal program offered by another nonprofit.
Church members stopped working with the first nonprofit because “they were being asked to provide what they considered too much information,” Coleman says. “They didn’t want to get into all that and asked what they could do to replace that work. They knew there were needs that they could address.”
The church’s annual budget now includes funds for the purchase of food for the breakfast program. Contributions also are made by other churches in the area and individuals. Coleman says the program costs about $1 per person per meal.
The food is purchased from a variety of sources, including Gordon Food Service and grocery stores. “We look for deals,” Coleman says. “We absolutely could not do it without help outside of St. Tom’s from local churches and community organizations.
“It’s a struggle and I worry sometimes that rather than helping we’re actually just perpetuating the problem in a way. But, this is what we’re called to do as Christians, to respond to people’s needs and feeding the hungry is right up there on top of Jesus’ list.”