Neighbor Loaves program protects every stage of grain production amid pandemic

Faith Albano reaches into the back seat of her car to take out bags of bread donations from Hewn and load them into the Hillside Food Pantry.
Faith Albano unloads bread donations in front of Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston. Food pantries, bakeries, millers and farmers across the upper Midwest have joined a program called Neighbor Loaves to protect their businesses during the pandemic and promote food security. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

By Carlyn Kranking
Medill Reports

On March 16, Hewn bakery in Evanston had 65 wholesale customers. The next day, it had only four.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country, shutting down businesses and driving customers indoors, the Midwest’s grain supply chain strained under the pressure. At Hewn, the resulting loss of wholesale customers, or other businesses that buy their products, forced the store to close its doors temporarily, move its entire business online and lay off some workers.

Soon afterward, Hewn joined a program called Neighbor Loaves. In this initiative, customers purchase loaves made from at least 50% locally grown and milled grain. Then, the bakeries donate these loaves to nearby food pantries. By securing relationships between farmers, millers, bakers and food pantries, the program protects local businesses and promotes food security.

“In the early months, it was really a lifeline,” said Ellen King, co-owner of Hewn. “We brought back all of our staff and hired some new positions. Without the Neighbor Loaves, it would have been a lot more challenging.”

Alyssa Hartman, executive director of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, started the Neighbor Loaves program in March. Now, over 20 bakeries in the region are participating, and they donated more than 15,000 loaves between March and August.

“This has allowed food pantries to have a larger quantity of fresh, locally produced bread available for patrons every week,” Hartman said.

Farmers & Millers

“It's satisfying to me, as a farmer, to know where my grain is going and that people are actually fed by the grain that we raise.”
– Harold Wilken, owner of Janie’s Farm

“People were coming to understand that this short supply chain like ours came through when the global supply chain was failing. I think that just kind of highlights the strength and the resilience of local food systems.”
– Jill Brockman-Cummings, mill manager and head miller at Janie’s Mill

At Janie’s Mill in Ashkum, Illinois, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the unexpected — an onslaught of online orders, around-the-clock milling and new hires. The flour shortage in the spring caused customers nationwide to look for a place that still had flour in stock, and Janie’s Mill did.

The mill is supplied by Janie’s Farm, located just 3 miles down the road, where owner Harold Wilken works with his son and nephew. A short supply chain like this isn’t reliant on any middleman that might have been affected by the pandemic, so the farm and mill could keep up with the online orders.

Mill production ramped up from 100 pounds of product daily in March to sometimes 6,000 or 7,000 pounds of product in a day as online orders surged.

“Bread kind of represents more than just food. It brings comfort to people, especially in uncertain times,” said Jill Brockman-Cummings, mill manager and head miller at Janie’s Mill. “I think that’s one reason that so many people were baking during those times, in those months when there wasn’t flour. It was because people associate bread with comfort.”

That’s also one reason why Brockman-Cummings was proud to have Janie’s Mill participate in the Neighbor Loaves program. She described the initiative as a “win-win.” Janie’s Mill partnered with bakeries, and community members gained access to fresh food.

“Flour’s one thing, but actually getting a ready-baked bread in your home is pretty powerful and helpful,” Brockman-Cummings said.

Ross Wilken seeds rye on Janie's Farm.
Ross Wilken seeds rye on Janie’s Farm in Ashkum, Illinois. (Harold Wilken)

Bakers

“A bakery is very visual, you shop with your eyes. You come in and you smell. We had to move all of that so that people are ordering stuff online instead of coming into the bakery and seeing what we’re making every day.”
– Ellen King, co-owner of Hewn

Bakeries scrambled to adapt as the pandemic slashed their wholesale profits and forced them to close. Hewn designed an online ordering platform and had customers place web orders 48 hours in advance of pickup. Floriole Cafe & Bakery in Chicago began selling frozen croissants and cookie dough for customers to take and bake at home.

“Then little by little, just like everyone else in the pandemic, we started to realize you can’t do this forever. And there’s people that need to work,” said Sandra Holl, founder and owner of Floriole.

The Chicago bakery brought back a limited number of staff to allow for social distancing and joined the Neighbor Loaves program. Their loaves are donated to The Friendship Center, which picks up the donations directly from the cafe. The bakery has donated 423 loaves and just sent 54 loaves on Oct. 13.

King estimates Hewn has donated over 3,600 loaves to date.

“Families that otherwise wouldn’t have come by our bread, they’re getting access to locally grown stone-milled grain that’s really nutritious,” King said. “That’s kind of exciting for us that we’re feeding a lot more families.”

Loaves of bread on a table.
Neighbor Loaves donations protect the local grain supply chain and promote food security. (AGC Instagram via @doughpcreations)

Food Distribution

“You make sandwiches with bread, you make toast in the morning for breakfast, or you make French toast — so bread is really one of those things that we tend to miss when we don’t have it.”
– Faith Albano, operations manager at Hillside Food Pantry

Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston tries to give its patrons a loaf of bread in every bag. As COVID-19 closed other food pantries, Hillside remained open, serving anyone who drove up regardless of where they lived. Despite growing demand for food, the pantry never turned anyone away.

But they did experience a shortage of bread donations.

“Food resources began to dry up,” said Faith Albano, operations manager at Hillside Food Pantry. “And one of the things that we really needed was bread.”

Hewn’s Neighbor Loaves donations go to Hillside. Albano said the program provides opportunities for customers of bakeries to help feed others in the community.

“It would be wonderful if other artisan bakeries would do the same thing and try and work with their local food pantry to supply the needs of that particular pantry,” Albano said.

Faith Albano unloads donations in front of Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston.
Faith Albano unloads Neighbor Loaves donations from Hewn in front of Hillside Food Pantry in Evanston. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

Carlyn Kranking is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carlyn_Kranking.

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