Community Meals volunteers

The Grace Lutheran chef, kitchen crew and servers provided a free community meal at Cornerstone Church in this file photograph taken last year.

When the numbers were all tabulated last May, the Family Shelter of the Bitterroot’s Community Meals program had provided 48,542 free meals since the program’s inception in October 2013.

At an average cost of $5 per meal, organizer Gary Locke said the program has already provided more than $250,000 in value to people in the valley who need it most.

None of it would be possible without a dedicated group of volunteers.

In its first five years, 12 different teams of church volunteers have given more than 16,571 hours of their time to prepare and serve the food at three churches in Hamilton.

Locke said the program is off to a fast start again this year. Since September, the Community Meals program has served 2,991 meals, with volunteers working 808 hours to make sure that people don’t go hungry in their community.

“It’s a lot of nice meals done with lots of love,” Locke said.

This year, the Community Dinner program received a $5,000 grant to help pay for food from the Town Pump Charitable Foundation.

The foundation’s director, Bill McGladdery, said the program meets the foundation’s mission to provide for basic needs in Montana communities.

“The foundation started 20 years ago with a mission to help meet basic needs in communities across the state,” McGladdery said. “We work with not-for-profit organizations and government entities to accomplish our mission.”

After reviewing a grant request written by Locke, the foundation’s grants committee approved the $5,000 grant.

“Given the need in the community, this was about the foundation wanting to help support that basic need of providing food and hot meals,” he said.

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The Town Pump Charitable Foundation joins the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation and Helena Catholic Diocese in providing financial assistance for the program. Each has given $3,000 a year.

The remainder of the food cost has primarily been borne by the congregations of the different churches involved in preparing and serving the meals.

The meals are served five nights a week. On Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, they are hosted by the Cornerstone Bible Church at 280 Fairgrounds Road. On Wednesday, the Assembly of God at 601 W. Main St. takes a turn. The Friday night meal is served at the St. Francis Church at 411 S. Fifth St.

All the meals, except for the one at Assembly of God, begin at 5:30 p.m. Supper at the Assembly of God Church starts at 6 p.m. They last about an hour.

Locke said the churches serve between 75 and 100 people a night. The people served are both young and old and come from a variety of different backgrounds.

“There are a lot of hidden homeless living in Hamilton,” Locke said. “Some are camped out on couches. We have the poster boys who come in four or five at a time. We get a lot of older folks who are on Social Security, or a veteran’s pension or maybe a disability. They’ve figured out that this is a way they can stretch their food budget out.

“And we get a lot of people coming from SAFE,” he said of the emergency shelter for people experiencing domestic or sexual violence. “There are a lot of moms and babies who don’t have much money to speak of. The teams of volunteers go out of their way to make a lot of great food for all of them.”

People sit family-style at large tables that seat about eight.

“These families, old folks and young people share a meal and develop relationships,” Locke said. “They look forward to seeing each other. Some of the older people come just for the company. They might go all day without seeing someone else.”

The meals are prepared by volunteers from 12 local churches who take turns.

“It works because people don’t get burned out,” Locke said. “Churches don’t get overloaded trying to do it all. People come and they prepare the food as their way of serving others. It’s turned into a real community meal. There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s become something that people look forward to and depend on.”