Joe Caramagna, a man who searches “doughnuts near me” when he travels, had never lived a short walk from a doughnut shop. This was a problem.
But one morning in April, he took a walk near his home in Paramus, New Jersey, and spotted on a building, written in crisp, red cursive script, a sign he never thought he would see less than a mile away. “Krispy Kreme,” it read.
The chain had recently announced that vaccinated people could get one free glazed doughnut a day until the end of the year. Caramagna had received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine a few days before.
“It was kismet,” he said.
Realizing the stars had aligned and popped him into the vacant center of his doughnut-obsessed world, he decided to channel his sweet cravings for a bigger purpose.
Caramagna, a comic book writer whose fans gift him doughnuts at conventions, set out on a mission that spring day: He would eat one free Krispy Kreme doughnut a day until the end of the year. For each doughnut devoured, he would donate a dollar to charity. He picked the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Piedmont Triad, a nonprofit organization that helps children access medical care and supports their families.
On a GoFundMe page where he has raised about $500, he says that beyond trying to encourage people to get vaccinated, he hopes others will “DOUGH-nate (har har)” to the Ronald McDonald House in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the city where Krispy Kreme is based.
Caramagna, 45, is one of the thousands of people across the nation and around the world who have started their own small vaccine campaigns. They hope to persuade even a few people to get the shot, raise money for charities, or, if nothing else, offer their friends and neighbors a little cheer in a dark time.
Proponents of such vaccination campaigns include TikTok stars and the Biden administration. States have offered incentives such as high-stakes lotteries, free beer and $100 payments. Although Caramagna said he didn’t believe many unvaccinated people had changed their mind just by watching him post photos of free doughnut No. 57 (glazed) or No. 73 (also glazed), he did hope at least to help a nonprofit through this “silly” and “dumb” endeavor.
“I don’t know if I’ve changed anyone’s mind on the vaccine, but I know I’ve certainly convinced people to go to Krispy Kreme,” he said. “To have a mission every day that no matter what, I have to go get the doughnut — I mean, it’s silly, but I feel like I’m doing something positive in this world that could probably use a little positivity.”
Caramagna, a bearded, spectacled father of three with a self-deprecating sense of humor, originally set out to reach 125 free doughnuts by Dec. 31. But with four months still on the calendar, he has already polished off more than 90 and now wants to see how many he can put away.
His Instagram page, where fans of his Marvel and Disney comics tag him frequently, is a collage of kooky doughnut knickknacks. There is the doughnut tree ornament, doughnut shirts, a doughnut mug, another doughnut mug and, of course, dozens of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
After seeing doughnut No. 5 (or 6) lying cold on the kitchen counter at home, his wife, Amy, turned to him and said, “Oh, so this is what we’re doing now?” The workers at the Krispy Kreme now recognize him, he said, making him feel “like a VIP” when they hand him his doughnut in line, no questions asked. And his doctor recently told him he’s in good health, giving him dietary clearance for when the Krispy Kreme app notifies him that the doughnuts are “hot and fresh.”
One original glazed doughnut at Krispy Kreme is 190 calories. According to Caramagna’s Apple Watch, he burns 96 calories each way on his walk to retrieve the doughnut.
“So, I’m actually running a deficit,” he said. “But I don’t encourage other people to do this.”
Since March 22, Krispy Kreme has given away more than 2 million glazed doughnuts, said Casandra Williams, a spokesperson for the company. Williams said Krispy Kreme was “all about sharing joy, and we love when our guests build upon our efforts to give back in their own way.”
Mindy Bloom, chief development officer for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Piedmont Triad, said in a statement that “like the Marvel superheroes he writes about,” Caramagna is a “hero, and we are inspired by his creativity and care for our families.”
Caramagna, who said he’s more akin to an old man who takes morning walks around the mall, said he’s glad to play a small part in helping the organization, which, Bloom said, has “encountered unplanned and unbudgeted expenses” because of the pandemic.
Caramagna specifically wanted to help the Ronald McDonald House because his oldest daughter, now 17, was born with meconium aspiration syndrome, a respiratory illness that is a leading cause of death among newborns, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
His daughter was in intensive care for almost a month before her recovery. Years later, he learned what the Ronald McDonald House does to help families experiencing what he and his wife had been through when their daughter was ill.
“We noticed there were a lot of families that were sleeping in waiting rooms and sleeping in chairs just to be able to be there at the hospital with their children, and that always stuck with me,” Caramagna said, recalling how fortunate he was to live near the hospital at the time.
His good fortune remained through the pandemic, he said, even when he and his wife got a mild COVID-19 infection last spring.
Now, he said, he has his morning walks to look forward to. He has a new daily routine.
And, more significantly, he has about 100 empty doughnut bags to prove he’s vaccinated.