Neighbor Loaves program supports bakeries, local grain and food banks

Initiative helps sudden shortage of bread at area food banks
Three loaves of ORIGIN Breads with wheat and wisconsin symbol

Photo courtesy of ORIGIN Breads

Loaves of ORIGIN's sourdough bread

In mid-March when it was clear that the coronavirus pandemic was developing into a serious situation in Madison, Alyssa Hartman, executive director of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, was worried about the farmers and bakers with whom she works. Founded in Chicago in 2016, the goal of the Artisan Grain Collaborative — a network of farmers, millers, maltsters, bakers, chefs, brewers, distillers, agricultural researchers and other organizations — is to promote a regenerative food system in the upper Midwest by encouraging people to invest in local grains in order to diversify the landscape and combat climate change.

When businesses began to shut down due to the pandemic, Hartman wasn’t sure what it was going to mean for the local grains movement. “Farmers are out in the field right now trying to plant next year’s crops and need to know that they can still sell what they are growing this year,” Hartman says. “I was also concerned about bakeries and restaurants who depend upon clientele who come in to buy product. You can do a certain amount of pivoting with delivery and other systems but that isn’t necessarily going to be efficient to sustain people’s businesses.”

Hartman and others connected with Madison’s baking community were also concerned about the sudden shortage of bread at area food banks. Grocery stores usually donate bread from commercial bakeries “who put so much bread on the shelves,” says Kirk Smock, owner ORIGIN Breads, which was recently selected as one of the 100 best bakeries in America by Food & Wine magazine. “Normally bread is something that food banks have way too much of but people were buying so much food [that] the food banks weren’t getting any.”

Hartman quickly came up with a plan. “What if we got people in the community to buy bread for their neighbors through the online store of local bakeries?” she recalls thinking. “And those bakers would use that money to continue to purchase grains from local farms, to pay their staffs and rent, and those loaves — instead of being delivered to the person who purchased them — would be distributed locally through community feeding organizations.”

The “Neighbor Loaves” program launched in Madison at the end of March. With the requirement that bakeries must use at least 50% locally grown stone milled flour — in order to support the Artisan Grain Collaborative’s mission — ORIGIN Breads and Madison Sourdough Company were the first two bakeries to participate. The program is now found across the Midwest with participating bakeries in cities including Chicago and Minneapolis.

Smock says ORIGIN Breads has donated more than 320 loaves, which cost $6.50 each, of sourdough bread to Second Harvest to date. “We have gotten a lot of orders from people who order loaves just to donate, otherwise people will add a loaf or two to their order,” Smock says. Madison Sourdough’s loaves, available for purchase through their website, are donated to Madison’s FEED kitchen. The loaves are also being distributed by REAP through its Farms to Families initiative which is purchasing local food for families currently experiencing job loss and food insecurity.

Hartman is happy about the response to the program, which she says is donating about 1000 loaves a week across the Midwest. “I think it has struck a nerve,” Hartman says. “People are sitting home wondering how they can help and this is a simple, easy way to spend $6.50 and to do something that is helping farms, food businesses and getting food to people who need it.” She says the program is a “concrete” way for people who have a little extra money to give to “make sure that people get fed and that the businesses that we love still exist when this over.”

Hartman also believes that the program could have staying power beyond the pandemic. “It could be creating a new supply chain for local grain and local bread to be getting in to these community feeding organizations that often have to use bread that has 30 or 40 ingredients,” Hartman says. “Now folks in the community are instead eating sourdough bread that has been fermented naturally, that is a lot easier on people’s guts, and only has three ingredients, including water, and is using grains from farms in Wisconsin.”