Gerald Karnes gets meals as they are handed out of the new takeout window at the First United Methodist Church in Bangor. The new window makes it easier for the volunteers to distribute free meals to people as they drive through on Thursday evenings. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A recently installed takeout window with direct kitchen access will save volunteers at Bangor’s First United Methodist Church thousands of steps when they distribute free meals each week.

The Essex Street church has served a free weekly meal on Thursdays since 2008. It switched from an in-person gathering to takeout-only service in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that change meant volunteers had to lug tables and food from the kitchen through the large fellowship hall to the edge of the circular driveway so they could hand out meals.

Now, while the church hopes to return to in-person meals, it plans to keep a drive-through alternative. The installation of the window makes the drive-through distribution more convenient at a time when demand for the free meals has been growing.

Diane Rochette, Kathie Merrill and Jane Burkhart (left to right), volunteers at the First United Methodist Church in Bangor, package dinners to distribute from the new take out window at the church. Sandra Parsons (far right) sits inside the window to hand the meals out. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

With the window installed, volunteers in the kitchen have pre-packaged, hot meals nearby. Two other volunteers outside ask drivers how many meals they need. Those volunteers then walk up to the window using a new concrete walkway to retrieve the meals and deliver them to the drivers.

It is the first such window in a church in Greater Bangor, and most likely is the first in Maine, according to Pastor Steve Smith.

Work on the window and the walkway began late last fall and was completed about two weeks ago, he said.

A $23,000 grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which supplies the church with the food it needs to prepare the meals, covered most of the costs associated with the window and walkway from the church driveway. The church pitched in another $4,000.

“This saves us a lot of steps,” said Sandra Parsons, a regular volunteer.

That’s important because most of the volunteers are over the age of 60.

Sandra Parsons (left) and Jane Burkhart wait inside the new takeout window at the First United Methodist Church in Bangor to distribute free meals on Thursday evening. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Since the church began offering takeout meals, the number of people seeking free meals for themselves and their neighbors has risen, according to Kathie Merrill, who coordinates the program for the church.

The number of cars that arrive each Thursday has increased from 60 to 70 each week to 80 or 90. The church supplies another 40 to 50 meals to the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and takes 25 meals to homeless encampments in Bangor. Church volunteers expect to distribute 100 meals to the encampments as the weather warms and the city anticipates more growth in its homeless population.

The church began serving the free community meals in 2008, during the Great Recession, when it served as a warming center. That transitioned into a Thursday evening meal in the church’s large fellowship hall a few years later. With the pandemic came takeout meals.

While the church hopes to return to in-person meals, the takeout alternative would remain.

Mary-Ellen Adams packages up a dinner in the kitchen of the First United Methodist Church in Bangor where volunteers meet on Thursdays to distribute free meals. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“A lot of people feel comfortable driving through but feel stigmatized to come inside,” said Merrill, who worked in food service at the University of Maine before retirement.

In addition to the free meals on Thursdays, the church uses the window to distribute its takeout bean suppers, which it sells on the fourth Saturday of each month to raise money for its mission work.