Diverse faith communities come together to provide 400,000 meals for U.P. neighbors

In 2019, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan received a grant toward their member churches’ hunger-relief efforts in the Upper Peninsula. Wanting to increase that grant’s impact, diocese leaders asked church attendees to match the amount. They quickly stepped up to help, raising a total of $10,000 for neighbors in need.

Mary, a diocese leader, remembered wondering what could happen if – instead of just Episcopalians – they got multiple U.P. faith communities involved in the fight against hunger.

That’s why, in 2020, Mary and Bishop Rayford invited U.P. leaders from the Jewish, Unitarian, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic communities to join together to raise funds for Feeding America West Michigan.

First, the faith leaders sought grants to create a pool of matching funds they could then challenge faith members to meet. Originally, they hoped for a $20,000 match, but ended up with $50,000 – thanks to many U.P. organizations, including the Superior Health Foundation, a dedicated supporter of Feeding America West Michigan.

Bishop Rayford Ray (left) and Jim LaJoie, executive director of the Superior Health Foundation, in Marquette.

Many faith community members accepted the challenge to meet the match, and raised $100,000 total – enough for the food bank to provide 400,000 meals’ worth of nutritious food to U.P. neighbors struggling with hunger.

The U.P.’s rurality makes it the perfect residence for neighbors who love independence, but it also means fewer jobs and greater distance between amenities.

“It’s difficult for people to even get to fresh food on a regular basis,” Mary said.

That’s partially why the diocese chose to support the food bank in our efforts to feed neighbors.

“One of the things we really appreciate about [the food bank] is that they get that about us and understand the challenges,” she said.

To meet the intense need found in their communities, many churches in the Episcopal Diocese run their own food pantries. Rayford shared how he was surprised the first time he realized it’s not just neighbors outside their church doors who attend these food pantries, but also those sitting in the pews.

“A lot of people, especially the elderly, are like, ‘do I get my medication, or do I get food?’” Rayford said.

Bishop Katherine of the U.P.’s Lutheran synod, was eager to get her faith community on board as well.

“When so much is going wrong in the world, this is something we can do,” she said. “There’s a lot of complicated issues out there, but at the very least we are called to feed the hungry.”

Bishop Katherine volunteers at a U.P. Mobile Pantry.

The food bank is grateful that community members of diverse backgrounds join us in our belief that hunger is unacceptable.

“I think it is about taking care of each of other,” Mary said. “One of the faith leaders said: ‘We may have disagreements about theology, but here’s something we can come together and agree on.’”

The efforts of committed faith communities, and the foundations and individuals that support them, will enable the food bank to continue serving thousands of neighbors in need in the U.P. until everyone’s plates are full.