The sun isn’t up yet, but already the large multipurpose room has lots of tired-looking people eating breakfast, talking and beginning their days. The room is filled with about 100 patrons, mostly sitting around circular tables on fold-up white chairs. A piano sits on one wall, and the edge of a curtained stage has been co-opted into a lean-and-eat area.
Hot oatmeal, grits and pastries are served buffet-style, right from the kitchen. A table with coffee, spreads and cereal is popular, and a toast-and-butter station is also set up.
Diners drink coffee from different styles of mugs, break open hard-boiled eggs and munch on the food. Some tables are loud with conversation about last night’s game, someone retelling a crazy story, complaining about Michigan’s too-cold weather, or even where to find a job. Others are silent with people just eating or staring into the distance. Some are dressed nice and have smartphones and iPods; others look shabby and have multiple layers of ragged clothes.
The breakfast, in some ways, is completely normal, and the same scene could easily be seen at West Quad or in a Kerrytown co-op. Old friends reconnect, and new table groups form.
However, this is not your typical breakfast: It’s the free breakfast program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, which is a nonprofit organization that serves disadvantaged individuals a morning meal seven days a week.
Since 1982, the breakfast program has been divvying out free breakfast to all who come. Volunteers and patrons can’t remember a single day when breakfast wasn’t available. A few years ago, an outage left much of southeastern Michigan without power. All was not lost for the breakfast streak: Candles were placed on tabletops, and breakfast was still provided. When St. Andrew’s temporarily closes for renovations or new wiring, the program moves to a nearby Methodist church, said program director Shannon Chase.
Between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. every day of the week, everyone is welcome to come, eat breakfast and relax for the hour. Located across the street from Community High School, the large, gothic Episcopal Church complete with a tall tower has white text painted on a window giving the hours for the breakfast program.
The program was started by members of the St. Andrew’s congregation and quickly expanded from a weekend program to a daily event. In recent years, the program has become its own separate nonprofit organization and now rents its space from the church. Many church members are still actively involved in the organization, but plenty of volunteers are not affiliated with the church.
Most volunteers are retirees or University students, but some work full time. Others are students from a nearby high school. Chase said she helps manage hundreds of volunteers throughout the year with varying levels of commitment.
In 31 years, the program has deliberately remained consistent. The organization wants to accomplish its one job and do it right.
“I think it’s easy to spread ourselves too thin,” Chase said. “So we just focus on breakfast every day of the week, every week of the year.”
People simply walk in. No registration is required, nor is proof of income of any kind. Some come for a single meal or just a few weeks’ worth, while others have been eating here daily for years. For many diners, the simplicity is a great benefit of the program. It allows for them to come and leave when needed — no questions asked.
Azula is a 20-year-old who said he is struggling financially and comes to the program for both a good breakfast and to interact with the people. At the breakfast program, patrons commonly know each other by only their first names.
“A lot of people forget how to ration their money and use it for the right things, and that’s why this is a big support to them in this community,” Azula said.
For some other local programs, there is a time limit or other requirement such as staying clean or mandatory job-seeking. This program has no such rules, and it’s extremely easy to take advantage of it — just show up.
A way to start the day
Every morning, one or two volunteers arrive about an hour early to begin the hot meal preparation, with the others arriving at 7 a.m. to set up. Coffee, juice, milk and water provide rehydration, while oatmeal or grits make up most meals. Jars and jars of peanut butter and jelly are beneath the counter. Many family-sized containers of grits and oatmeal are in a nearby room. More food is prepared and refilled throughout the hour.
The patrons line up outside the church and enter once everything is set up. They accept coffee, juice, pastries and hot cereal from dedicated servers while serving themselves cold cereals and toast. Many choose to save some food, and the breakfast program provides bags for pack-your-own lunches. On Wednesdays and Sundays, the very popular hard-boiled eggs are on the menu; they travel easily and pack a lot of calories.
People come and go throughout the hour, with most arriving during the first half. At 8:30 a.m. sharp, plates are collected, and most people quickly leave. The volunteers dry dishes, clean up and leave by 9 a.m.
Having an early morning breakfast program allows for people who have jobs to still take advantage of it, Chase said. Also, making breakfast is less expensive and simpler than lunch or dinner.
Some patrons appreciate the early hours, saying that forcing them to wake up to get breakfast is a great incentive to start their days. Without the incentive to get up at 8 a.m., breakfast-goer Nick said he might just sleep late. The early morning program helps him structure his time. He has an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, and the program lets him stay on budget.
Homeless individuals — especially early in the mornings — can struggle with finding places to stay. Mary has taken advantage of the free breakfasts on and off for several years. She is currently staying at a local homeless shelter and said everyone has to leave in the morning, about when the free breakfast program starts.
“It’s a place to go at 7 o’clock in the morning when it’s dark out,” Mary said. “It takes up some of your time, which is a good thing.”
Building community one meal at a time
The breakfast program is more than just a free meal; it gives people a community. It gives people a place to be and a group of people to know who are experiencing similar hardships.
Mary said she not only appreciates the warm room and the food but also the volunteers and the other participants.
“It’s kind of like a meeting place for everyone, and no one judges anyone. We’re all here, down on our luck, and we all have our own stories,” Mary said.
For many low-income individuals, the difference between having a place to live and not having a place to live is the safety net of friends and family. Many who become homeless don’t have that available to them. The breakfast program and the community it fosters allow for some of that community and the safety net to potentially be established.
Anne Piehl, a University alum and a weekly volunteer, said the vast majority of people who partake in the breakfasts live in single-member households.
“Finding a place where there’s community, I’m sure, is huge in their lives,” she said. “It’s got to be.”
Carl works at a grocery chain, but comes to St. Andrew’s before work to help him stay afloat. He only recently started eating there, but views its community as a great resource to learn about benefits.
“You do have a sense of community here,” he said.
Carl said he worries others might view the program as a permanent crutch instead of a stepping stone to move up. Chase estimates that between one-third and half of the program’s patrons are regulars who have been coming consistently for a year or more. The rest, she said, come and go — a month here, a week there.
“They greet each other; they’ll help each other,” Chase said. “They look out for each other, and they know each other.”
Many of the people who eat the breakfasts don’t have consistent schedules or places to stay. The breakfast program may be one of the only places where they know they will be every day. Mary mentioned how she sometimes might not see a friend for six months, but they can come together at St. Andrew’s and reconnect.
“We are able here to allow for people to stay for an hour and sit,” Mary said. “I do see a sense of community; I do see people sitting together in this group or that group.”
The breakfast program serves a huge spectrum of people of all ages and races and needs. Each breakfast is extremely diverse with many different ages and races represented. The needs of each individual also vary significantly. Many have alcohol or drug addictions, and some have mental disabilities. Dealing with this large sample of humanity all in one room does sometimes cause issues.
Halfway through one breakfast, Chase stood up and loudly blew a whistle. Everyone respectfully got quiet and listened; this had clearly happened before. Chase announced someone had drawn graffiti in the bathroom and that it might be closed if the behavior doesn’t stop. Some sighed while others groaned. All those interviewed said the program was kept very calm and safe. Any issues are quickly dealt with.
The number of people fed daily ranges from 70 to 140, Chase said. There doesn’t seem to be a clear trend, and it’s very hard to predict the number of mouths to feed and so the yearly expenditure changes a lot. According to Chase, the organization is in the process of attracting more corporate donors and grants so that the program doesn’t have to rely on small personal donations as much.
Whether the program is funded by church members or corporate grants, all those in need will be able to fill their stomachs and reach a friendly community for years to come.
“They’re doing something right,” Carl said. “I mean they’ve been doing it since ’82, so they’re doing something right here.”