The calendar read March 16, 2020.
It was like any other Monday for Andy Mooney, owner of Red Bench Bakery in Chaska and Excelsior.
He had staff do their normal bread bake for the next day, about 40 or 50 loaves. After prepping the flour and water and throwing it into the oven, he heard Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz made an announcement: restaurants needed to stop serving dine-in customers.
It’s part of an all-too familiar concept to people across the world in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic — ‘stay home.’
When Mooney heard of the news, he’d already made dozens of loaves. But who could he sell them to? Turns out, Red Bench wasn’t going to sell them to anyone.
“What am I going to do with all this bread?” he remembered asking.
Turns out, an Eastern Carver County School District staff member came into the bakery just days before, when schools announced a pause, lining up with spring break. The district followed statewide guidelines closing through March 27. Afterward, distance learning is set to begin.
Mooney told the district he’d help in any way he could, and help is just what he offered.
That week, he delivered dozens of artisan sourdough loaves to Clover Ridge Elementary School, which is serving to-go lunches to children.
“I hate to just throw it away,” Mooney said.
KEEPING KIDS FULL
Kim Franta, district nutrition director, said staff were grateful for Red Bench’s bread, especially considering a short turnaround to figure out a food solution for families. She said they had about 20 hours to implement a meal pick-up system.
“It was a really quick turnaround, but it was really a priority,” Franta said.
Beyond Mooney’s help, she said other businesses were quick to offer a hand.
“Our vendors have been really great,” Franta said. “We’re trying to make the meals fun for kids (and) meeting nutrition guidelines.”
Children were eligible to pick up food at Clover Ridge Elementary School and the Riverview Terrace Community Center. Staff were on hand to deliver lunch car-side and plan to continue service pending a long-term closure.
Celi Haga, district communications director, said nobody checked for proof of residence or enrollment in district schools.
“Our priority is that we don’t want any kids to go hungry,” Haga said. “We just want to make sure that nobody is struggling right now.”
Mooney shared the sentiment.
After delivering loaves to the district, he turned back to Red Bench. Bread was ready to be made, and he had an idea.
“The next day we did our normal bread bake and did it out the back door,” he said. “I stayed there until 4 p.m. and gave out bread for free.”
Free bread — to anyone who stopped by — became Red Bench’s mission that day. Mooney called it a “little thing to give back.”
Nearly 100 loaves went out the door that day.
“People tried paying me, and this is not really a time for that,” Mooney said. “We’re all in this together and we need to help each other out and come together to bring nourishment to the neighborhood.”
The response was great, he said. People stopped by to ask if they could do anything to help. He offered a simple response.
“When we open the doors, please be here to support us. If you want, donate money to different food shelves. We’re fine. Please just come back,” Mooney said. “Support your local restaurants through this hard time. This is unprecedented. This is — we’ve never encountered anything like this.”
He encouraged folks to find a way to support local businesses, whether it be through pick-up services, buying gift cards to use later, or offering donations.
Mooney said the bread giveaways weren’t in Red Bench’s budget, obviously — because there was no way to plan for the virus. But he calls the exchange a way to get the product out so it wouldn’t go to waste.
“It’s bread we would have made anyway,” Mooney said.
Donations didn’t stop with the bakery though. The school district joined the club when it had a surplus of perishable items.
Haga said since the district didn’t have school, much of that food would have gone to waste. The district donated about 100 cases of bulk produce to Bountiful Basket Food Shelf in Chaska, and donated other items to area food shelves.
“We let them take whatever their coolers could handle,” Franta said. “They told us they’d been pretty wiped out the day before.”
Franta said the day the district started pick-up lunch, 150 students were fed. That grew to 275 the following day and kept rising that week.
Should there be a long-term closure due to the virus, staff are making plans.
The Minnesota Department of Education eased up on food programs, meaning District 112 now qualifies for reimbursements even though few district children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
It’s the little things, like apples and bread, that make a difference. Both the district and Mooney agree on that message.
Mooney said he’s hoping to keep giving back in whatever way they can. He wants to keep Red Bench open, but the future is uncertain for everyone it seems.
“The world ended,” he said. “But we’ve got to figure out how to restart it.”