There came a time when Mary Longfield just needed to stop.
Stop with the flour and yeast, the rising and preheating. The constant bread-baking that was filling her time, but filling her son-in-law to the point of surrender.
“He said, ‘Quit making bread!’” Longfield remembered with a laugh.
But then he sent her a link to Community Loaves, a nonprofit that has an army of home bakers supplying a local food bank with hundreds of loaves of bread, twice a month.
“It gave me something to do during the coronavirus,” Longfield said. “It’s a purpose.”
And it’s not just any bread.
The Community Loaves Honey Oat Pan Loaf is made with 50 percent whole grains and high-extraction flour, which packs a nutritional punch.
Its creator, Katherine Kehrli, the associate dean of the Seattle Culinary Academy calls the bread “approachable, familiar and family friendly” because it can be used for toast, sandwiches or to help along a bowl of hot soup.
Perhaps best, though, is that the bread is made by volunteer bakers, who pay for the flour and other ingredients, bake it at home, then gather the loaves and donate them to Hopelink, a social-services nonprofit that includes a loaf in some of the 3,000 boxes of food it gives to needy families.
Kehrli started the baking program earlier this year, bringing together farmers, home bakers and a nonprofit to feed people — some of them seeking help for the first time.
“It provides our clients with the only source of bread at the food bank since the beginning of COVID,” said Nicole Novak, a spokeswoman for Hopelink. “When bread was difficult to find in stores, it was nice to have this staple available to our clients.”
It began when Kehrli, founder of the Northwest BreadBakers, was forced by the pandemic to cancel events like visits to a grain farm and bread-making workshops, but still wanted her 481 members to do something together while quarantined.
“The silver lining of COVID is that some of us work from home and have this new space to explore our baking,” she said.
At the same time, food banks have been facing a huge demand amid high unemployment.
“What can we do with the network of committed, quarantined bakers with time on their hands?” Kehrli wondered. “They can’t eat all the bread they’re baking, so they’re giving it away to friends and family. Why not expand that to the community?”
Members were looking for ways to make an impact beyond donating money.
“Making bread is a little more meaningful,” Kehrli said, “a little more tactile and a little more fulfilling.”
It’s also been good for the farms that provide the flour, like Cairnspring Mills in Burlington. Other farms have started growing wheat, now that the summer growing season is over.
Kehrli now has more than 140 volunteer bakers, packers and drivers making the bread donations happen twice a month. Bakers pick up their supplies — flour, yeast — at one of 13 hubs that stretch from Mukilteo to Olympia. They return to the same spot with finished loaves every other Sunday, and then they’re transported to Kehrli’s house. (This last week, bakers made 330 loaves.)
On Monday, the bread is delivered to Hopelink, which distributes it to families on Tuesdays. (The recipe is designed to keep the loaves fresh for several days.)
In the 18 weeks since the program started, members have made and donated 3,229 loaves of bread — or, 6,411 lbs. of bread.
One recent Saturday morning, volunteers gathered in Kehrli’s Kirkland garage to break down 11, 50-pound bags of flour each into five-pound plastic bags to be distributed to volunteer bakers.
The bakers pay a reduced price for the supplies — about $8 for five pounds of flour and a block of yeast — make four loaves, donate three and save one for themselves.
Bridget Charters, the culinary director of the Hot Stove Society, a cooking school started by chef Tom Douglas, has known Community Loaves founder Katherine Kehrli for years and has been a big help from the start.
“It’s so amazing that Katherine got this going,” Charters said. “She has created this awesome connection to the farm and bread-making communities, and it seems to be a way to help.”
Barbara Gardner, of Kenmore, got involved after seeing a TV story about Community Loaves. She had started making bread every week during the pandemic, and she was looking for a way to help the community.
“It feels so good,” she said of the process of baking bread, and donating it. “My experience with what I see outside — people caring for each other — doesn’t match up with what I see on the news. So this feels great.”
Kimbra Ong is new to the area and got involved to meet people but also to learn how to make bread.
“I was feeling a little paralyzed by the pandemic,” she said. “What is safe to do? And this is approved.
“I love baked goods; they feel like love. And this is just an extension of that.”
“And the bread is really good!” Longfield added. “It makes great toast and good sandwiches.”
Volunteer Jessica Breznau joined the effort after starting a pop-up bakery in her South Seattle home, where she makes and sells pasteis de nata, a type of Portuguese tart. She started selling her own bread for a while but stopped.
“It’s slow-going if you don’t have a big oven,” said Breznau, who also runs the Southside Booty Camp, an outdoor exercise program. “So I changed to tarts.”
While trying to source flours for her tarts, Breznau heard about Community Loaves, which allows her to bake smaller loaves and for a good cause. (She also makes masks with Seattle Southend Sewers.)
“This is a better fit,” she said of Community Loaves. “I feel like I’m continuing to lend a hand, and it’s good to contribute right now. “
Some food-bank clients have allergies to the processed grain used in store-bought bread, but they are able to eat the bread from Community Loaves, Novak said.
“Others are just plain excited to eat something different and nourishing, apart from their other food bank items,” she added. “Either way, everyone is appreciative.
“Katherine saw a need and filled it,” she said. “It gives clients wholesome food, and also because it provides community members with an opportunity to get involved during a time when the need is so great.”