by Alyssa Hartman, Artisan Grain Collaborative
The Artisan Grain Collaborative is a network of organizations and individuals working throughout the Upper Midwest grain value chain to create a regenerative grainshed in our region. For years, consumers have considered fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat a part of their local food system while grains – crops including wheat, rye, barley, and oats – have largely been the last items to our tables and plates in the local food movement.
But grain is having a bit of a “moment” right now, as evidenced by the many stories folks may have recently read about local mills stepping up to fill the demand for flour so consumers can soothe their pandemic-induced nerves through baking. My friend, author, and fresh flour advocate Amy Halloran, recently wrote about this topic in Civil Eats. Illinois farmer and miller Harold Wilken was featured by the BBC last week for the work he is doing to get grain from the field to the doors of home bakers across the nation. While national supply chains have faltered, local and regional food systems have stepped up and in to fill the needs of eaters in their communities throughout the country.
In March – at the beginning of COVID-19’s descent on the Midwest – before any of us knew there was a home baking renaissance on the horizon, I was worrying and wondering what could be done to support area farms, mills, and bakeries, while also puzzling about how to fill the need in the emergency feeding system created by empty grocery store shelves. (When there is no excess bread for donation by retailers, it leaves area food pantries in a lurch.) An idea popped into my head: What if area bakeries, particularly those who had lost their wholesale accounts and were low on business, had an opportunity to bake bread for community members in need? What if we tapped into the collective generosity of our communities to fuel such a movement? Shortly after, Neighbor Loaves was born.
The concept is simple. Participating bakeries add a new product to their online stores called a Neighbor Loaf. Customers are invited to head to bakeries’ virtual shops and purchase loaves. Each Neighbor Loaf is crafted with at least 50% locally grown flour processed by a local mill. The loaves are priced at each bakery’s normal retail price to ensure bakers are able to pay not only farmers and millers, but their staff and other expenses, as well. Once the loaves have been purchased and baked, they are distributed to a partner food pantry or other community feeding organization and offered to people who need them.
In this moment when so many people want to help and simply cannot in the way they normally might, this easy to engage concept struck a nerve. The program has now been operating for a bit over a month and in that time, nearly 5,000 loaves have been purchased from the nine participating bakeries across Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The initiative has also spread to other parts of the country, being picked up by organizations and businesses dedicated to supporting their own local grainsheds. Bakeries from New England to Washington state are engaging with this concept and leveraging their local grain economy to feed the broader community.
My wish for a crystal ball hasn’t yet been granted, but my fingers are tightly crossed that this initiative continues into the future. In Italy, there is a practice called sospeso – “a cup of coffee paid for in advance as an anonymous act of charity”. Why not the same for bread? I’m going to keep purchasing my weekly Neighbor Loaf, and I hope you will, too. Find the list of participating bakeries here. And if you are or know a bakery that would like to get involved, start here.
If you want to learn more about Alyssa Hartman and the Artisan Grain Collaborative, check out this interview she did with Carol Hays as part of the Our Food is Our Future Summit.
Photo courtesy of Hewn.