MILWAUKEE —After delivering bread for local bakeries for 25 years, Michael Czarnecki knew lots of surplus goods go to waste. As a member of the Knights of Columbus, Czarnecki knew many low income people in the area who could make good use of that excess bakery.
Connecting people in need with the “excess product” — as he calls it — has led Czarnecki to three-time weekly bread runs through which he and fellow volunteers deliver hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bakery annually. Items that would otherwise spoil now go to those in need.
Some of the deliveries are made to organizations like the School Sisters of St. Francis and Nativity Jesuit Middle School, who in turn distribute the bakery to those in need. In total, thanks to Czarnecki’s connections in the baking business, more than 100 food pantries, including those at St. Philip Neri and St. Casimir parishes, Milwaukee, and St. Dominic Parish, Brookfield, are supplied with baked goods. Czarnecki likes to refer to it as “charity helping charity,” with the Knights turning around and helping other outreach programs help the needy.
In the four years Czarnecki has been making his charitable bread runs, he’s driven one minivan, a 1992 Plymouth Voyager, out of existence, and his newer car, a 2000 Plymouth SE, has tallied more than 15,000 miles in the last three years.
Until recently, when gas prices soared, Czarnecki, a member of St. Therese Parish, Milwaukee, would put 160 miles on the car in one day alone.
The wear and tear on his cars, and his investment of time, are worth it for Czarnecki.
“I love doing it. It’s a giving back for all the things I’ve been given. When I was in this situation and needed the help, God came through and helped me out so I’ll do something for him in return,” said Czarnecki, referring to assistance he received during his lifetime as he was out of work, battling several serious health issues.
In fact, because of his health, Czarnecki, 63, was forced to take an early retirement at age 59 from Jaeger Bakery, a division of Earthgrains Baking, where he was a driver. Permanent nerve damage, fiber myalgia, and restless legs syndrome led to his early retirement.
Rather than letting her husband sit at home and mope about his health problems, Czarnecki’s wife, Irene, encouraged him to find ways to volunteer.
“My wife saw me sitting at home and said, ‘You’ve got to do something,’” explained Czarnecki. He turned to the Knights of Columbus, getting involved with numerous charitable efforts, including a birthday party for a terminally ill girl and helping secure donations of furniture and household goods for those in need. Czarnecki was deputy grand Knight of Council 3095 in West Allis in 2002-03 and grand Knight of the council in 2003-04. He also is a member of the Knights’ honor guard.
The Knights’ emphasis on helping the less fortunate prompted Czarnecki to use his many connections in the baking business to find ways to feed the hungry.
He turned to George Weston Bakeries, which owns the local Brownberry Bakeries, and found they were happy to donate the excess bakery if he was willing to deliver it for them. He also has delivered excess product donated by Einstein Bagels, Starbucks and Sara Lee Bakeries.
On Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Czarnecki, rising at 6:30 a.m., and his helpers, go to the Brownberry Thrift Store in Brookfield and fill the back of his van with baked goods that they then take to locations throughout the area, from Prince of Peace Church to Hope House to Jesuit Nativity Middle School.
His deliveries take him from Waukesha to Lake Michigan, New Berlin to the north side of Milwaukee. Currently, about nine members of the Knights of Columbus and eight members of Catholic parishes assist Czarnecki with the deliveries. With the addition of another group of bakery outlets willing to donate excess goods, Czarnecki hopes more people will volunteer to assist with deliveries.
“This basically is my life,” said Czarnecki of the bread deliveries. “My wife and I do not travel because of our health and also the money isn’t there.”
Because of health problems and the early retirement, the Czarneckis do not enjoy a comfortable financial retirement, he explained. They scrape by financially, he admitted, noting that the rising fuel costs have made it difficult for him to continue his outreach.
The Knights of Columbus reimburse Czarnecki at 14 cents a mile, far less than the U.S. government’s reimbursement rate of 48.5 cents a mile.
Czarnecki said he would welcome a grant or financial support in order to keep making his bread runs. “But money is not everything,” he noted. “It’s important for me to help people. I love to see the smiles on the little ones’ faces when they see me coming with the bread.”