FEEDING PEOPLE THROUGH FEEDING BUSINESSES, ONE LOAF AT A TIME

The idea for Neighbor Loaves was born like many other great ideas: in the shower. In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Alyssa Hartman, Executive Director of Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC), spent her few minutes getting ready each morning thinking about the problems emerging in the grain value chain her organization supports.

Everyone was affected: Bakers lost much of their wholesale business overnight. Farmers and millers benefitted from an early uptick in sales of flour, but there was great uncertainty about the future, especially as farmers prepared to plant spring crops. At the same time, hoarding left grocery shelves empty, which surely meant that food pantries were running low, too. And lots of people were eager to do something to help their neighbors.

The problems were mounting, but what about solutions?

Hartman saw the potential for something as elemental as bread to help people across industries and communities. At its core, the Neighbor Loaves program she founded is simple: Customers pay for loaves of bread that are baked with local grains and donated to neighborhood food pantries and community feeding organizations. The implications are far reaching, though. With extra demand, bakers can retain employees and sustain their businesses. By providing local grain, farmers and millers are assured of ongoing sales. Food pantries receive fresh bread to distribute to those in need. And people who want to help have an easy opportunity to do so.

“With so much need, people aren’t sure how to help,” Hartman says. “With this particular ask—pay about $6 to support farmers, bakers and food pantries—you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

The Neighbor Loaves Project

INDIANA BAKERY GETS INVOLVED

Bloomington, IN-based Muddy Fork Bakery was one of the first AGC member bakeries to join the program. Owner Eric Schedler joined AGC last year because the organization aligns closely with the values he and his wife, Katie Zukof, hold for their own business, including support for local grain economies. Schedler also appreciates AGC’s progressive activism and the communitymindedness that fueled Neighbor Loaves.

As part of the Neighbor Loaves project, Muddy Fork contributes 75 loaves of 100% whole grain wheat bread to Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard in Bloomington each week. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, approximately 60% of Muddy Fork’s total sales are online, making it easy for customers just to add a Neighbor Loaf to their existing order, Schedler says. If they don’t receive 75 weekly orders, Muddy Fork kicks in the difference.

To fulfill the Neighbor Loaves orders, one Muddy Fork baker works an 8-and-a-half-hour shift on Sundays to make and bake the bread, with packaging and delivery on Monday mornings. That means Neighbor Loaves not only provides bread to those who need it but also helps pay the baker’s salary. As well, Muddy Fork sources grain from nearby Janie’s Mill, in Ashkum, IL, further contributing to the local grain economy.

The Muddy Fork Neighbor Loaf is a simple whole wheat sourdough, made with flour milled in-house from Janie’s Mill wheat plus water, salt, sourdough starter and yeast. Unlike many of their round artisan loaves, the Muddy Fork’s Neighbor Loaf is baked in a loaf pan. Not only does that allow them to take advantage of lower temperatures in their wood-fired brick oven, which by Sunday has cooled considerably after being fired up on Wednesday, but also the loaf-shaped bread is “more accessible” for folks coming to the food pantry who “may not necessarily be into artisan-style bread,” Schedler says. One loaf costs $5.75.

THE FUTURE OF NEIGHBOR LOAVES

By early August, 20 bakeries in five states had donated approximately 13,000 loaves of bread to 20 Midwest food pantries through the Neighbor Loaves project, resulting in more than $85,000 circulating in local economies. AGC hoped to have 10 more bakeries participating and a total of 20,000 loaves donated by the end of September. But that’s not the end of Neighbor Loaves.

The program has been so well received by everyone involved that AGC plans to continue with Neighbor Loaves indefinitely, and in September a Wisconsin bakery began contributing fresh tortillas.

“A lot of urgency has left the room, and it will be really interesting to see what happens in the future,” Hartman says. “But I’m proud of what we’ve done so far to support farmers, bakers and millers through the initial hiccup of the pandemic—plus all the people who got to eat bread!”

And it’s the bread that really made this program what it is. Schedler believes people are drawn to bread “because it’s so simple: just grain, water and salt.”

Hartman calls it “sort of magical” that you could take these humble ingredients that are unappealing on their own and make them into something delicious and nourishing. “At a time when we have so little control, from these things that don’t look like a lot, you can feed your family,” she says. “There’s just something about bread.”

Originally published at Edible Indy on October 13, 2020. Photos by Megan Cowans.