You hungrily scan the rows of plump bagels and cinnamon-and-sugar covered pastries at your favorite cafe, carefully selecting the perfect pairing 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 goes 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 ranges from 5.2 percent to 17 percent of the population, according to diocesan Catholic Charites. 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 and St. Louis Parish that brings unsalable bread products from five food vendors to 20 food pantries, shelters and churches, including Christ House in Alexandria, the 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. Mc-Cracken says 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 University’s Education for Parish Services program in D.C. A classmate and Maryland Knight who had been collecting extra bread from an industrial bakery and bringing 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,” recalled McCracken. “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 is misunderstood. “Many Americans think of a sell-by date as an expiration date, but that’s not true,” he said. They are meant to tell grocers how long to keep items on shelves.
The “rescued” bread is still “fresh and good to eat,” said McCracken.
Knights and 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 breadbased 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 Mc-Cracken is grateful to be part of an effortthat 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.”