When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, regional small grain value chains across the country were affected. Wholesale and consumer purchases of artisan baked goods plummeted as Americans stayed home and isolated. This created negative downstream effects on local bakeries, mills, and farmers as consumers increased grocery purchases, while baking bread and pastries at home. This new exploration in home baking, coupled with a loss of wholesale accounts, threatened the existence of many local bakeries and led to uncertainty for farmers and regional grain mills. The combination of a pandemic and increased grocery purchasing led to job loss, empty shelves and an increasing demand on food pantries.
Out of these disruptions in supply and demand the idea of Neighbor Loaves was born. Artisan Grain Collaborative, a collective of Mid-Western bakers, chefs, millers, farmers and more, saw an opportunity to support those struggling with the loss of wholesale accounts while also helping community feeding organizations meet increasing demand. With some variation across communities, through Neighbor Loaves programs, bakeries offer whole wheat sandwich loaves containing at least 50% local grain that their customers can donate by paying the regular retail price either at a retail location or through an online store. Recipes for these loaves are based on the Approachable Loaf initiative spearheaded by Washington State University's Bread Lab. The bakeries then distribute these Neighbor Loaves to community feeding organizations to help neighbors in need while also generating a key source of revenue for bakeries hard hit by pandemic market disruptions and continuing to build markets for local grains. The success of their work inspired small grain communities across the country to band together to bring bread to the people.
The impact of the Neighbor Loaves program has allowed more than 20 artisan bakeries to retain their staff and replace some of the revenue lost from stagnant wholesale accounts. The use of local flour has helped to bolster the sales of small-scale regional millers, while providing more certainty to small grain farmers. On top of these positive outcomes, more than 15,000 loaves of bread have been purchased by consumers and donated to regional food pantries. Feedback from participants in the Neighbor Loaves program suggest that it has resulted in a more resilient, connected, and supportive value chain.