ARLINGTON –– You hungrily scan the rows of plump bagels and cinnamon-and-sugar covered pastries at your favorite cafe, carefully selecting the perfect paring for your midday coffee or post-Mass outing.
But what happens to the bread-based items at the end of the day or after they’ve reached their sell-by date?
Much of it likely will go from display case to trash can to landfill, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. The study found that 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten.
Tossing out edible food does not sit well with Jim McCracken, a parishioner of St. Louis Church in Alexandria, especially given that food insecurity across the Diocese of Arlington ranges from 5.2 to 17 percent of the population, according to diocesan Catholic Charities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.”
To divert at least some food from landfills into hungry stomachs, McCracken began what he refers to as a “food gleaning ministry” 15 years ago. Called Bread for Our Brothers, the ministry is a partnership between the Mount Vernon Knights of Columbus Council in Alexandria and St. Louis Parish that gathers unsellable bread products from five food vendors to take to 20 food pantries, shelters and churches.
The recipients include Christ House in Alexandria, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Fredericksburg and the Catholic Charities-run St. Lucy Project distribution center in Manassas, which serves as a hub for parish food pantry donations. Bread also is brought to 10 local religious communities, including the Poor Clares and Poor Sisters of St. Joseph in Alexandria.
Gleaning, referred to multiple times in the Bible, is the custom of allowing the poor to follow reapers in the field and gather the fallen but edible food. McCracken said the term is fitting because his ministry not only collects bread that would otherwise be wasted but also fulfills the Gospel call to care for the poor and “live with charity.”
Bread for Our Brothers began while McCracken was attending Trinity Washington University’s Education for Parish Services program in the District of Columbia. A classmate and Maryland Knight of Columbus who had been collecting extra bread from an industrial bakery and taking it to food pantries in Maryland and Washington was looking for another place to distribute the loaves.
McCracken volunteered to help, and he began transporting bread to the nonprofit United Community Ministries in Alexandria, where he’d been teaching adults computer skills.
“I’d fill up my van with all this fresh bread, and the windows would steam up,” McCracken recalled in an interview with the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. “It always smelled like a bakery.”
The ministry has grown over the years, with around 45 volunteers now gathering a mix of pastries, artisan breads, bagels and rolls from three Safeways and one Panera Bread store near St. Louis Church. They collect sliced bread from the Lorton and Alexandria depots of Bimbo Bakeries USA, the largest bakery company in the United States; Vermont Bread Co., an organic baked goods supplier; and the Schmidt Baking Co., which delivers to Giant grocery stores in Lorton and Springfield.
Some of the bread has been slightly dented or is excess. Much is collected on or near the sell-by date.
McCracken said the sell-by date labeling is misunderstood. “Many Americans think of a sell-by date as an expiration date, but that’s not true,” he said. The dates are meant to tell grocers how long to keep items on shelves.
The “rescued” bread is still “fresh and good to eat,” said McCracken.
Volunteers, hailing from St. Louis and other local Christian churches, collect the bread several days a week and transport it to the various locations using a truck lent by the St. Lucy Project. Most of the bread comes from the Vermont Bread Co. and Bimbo, and McCracken estimates a total of 2,500-3,500 bread-based items are donated each week.
It’s a simple ministry at the service of bigger efforts to feed the hungry, said McCracken, who retired in 2003 as a federal employee at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But McCracken is grateful to be part of an effort that saves edible bread from going to the landfill and nourishes people. “It’s an act of mercy,” he said. “It’s an extension of what Pope Francis is calling us to do.”
Scott is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Arlington Diocese.