Bake What We Knead: Solving the Problem of Excess Bread

What should be done about the extra bread flooding our markets and soup kitchens?


I could spend all day collecting day-olds from bakeries for the community meals program I run. The donuts, danishes, and buttery rolls look luscious, but our guests have plenty of access to refined foods. I want to offer healthier options, so I started think more about what all this extra bread does to all of us—not just those who rely on emergency feeding programs, but also to the average eater, and bakers, too.

As a nation, we’re making too much bread. Exactly how much is hard to say, but some estimate that one-third of all the bread made in America goes to waste. In their roadmap to less food waste, ReFED reported that grain products constitute 19 percent of food waste in our country. In New York City, City Harvest redistributed 5.1 million pounds of bread in 2016, or almost 10 percent of the food they collected.

This surplus breaks my heart. I like baking so much that I wrote a book about flour, and spent years learning about how much work goes into getting grain from the field to the mill. That work is not reflected in the cost of flour, which is insulated by economies of scale, the pennies game of milling, and government subsidies ($40 billion between 1995 and 2014). No wonder this ingredient seems disposable.

There’s also the fact that, except in the most exclusive bakeries, a bare shelf is a no-no. Customers expect fresh bread and lots of it. Sugar and fat are also relatively inexpensive, so it is safer to make too much and donate the leftovers than it is to risk running out.

The problem of plenty isn’t exclusive to America. In France and Germany, small bakeries are closing, partially because of the ubiquity of supermarket bread. Baker Pascal Rigo, who reinvented the baked goods at Starbucks, is now building a network of microboulangeries in France, hoping to revive the traditions of local baking. I think we should take a page from this model, and scale back bread production, too.

I’m not saying we should harken back to another era entirely. Before factory bread was the norm in America, many women spent their only day off baking large batches of bread. Yet the solution, which began with horse-drawn carts delivering factory-baked bread, has ballooned, bringing with it all kinds of industrial-scale problems. Even in the manufacturing process, this kind of bread can generate great waste. If one machine on the line breaks down, 90,000 pounds of dough can suddenly go “off-track,” destined to be sold into animal feed or other secondary markets.

Managing excess dough and baked goods in smaller-scale bakeries is not as clumsy, but still a part of business. And these businesses expect charities to absorb the extra. But people living in poverty already have access to easy calories, and even large operations like mine limit what we accept. Our shelf space is limited, and produce is heavy, perishable, and needs a lot of handling.

For instance, I recently sorted through a case of clementines, removing the ones that had burst, and rinsing the rest. The task didn’t take long but it did take time, and not all of our volunteers know how to look at dubious fruit and decide what’s worth saving. But the bread and sweets we pick up are always attractive and ready to serve.

What would happen if we made a lot less bread—and fewer donuts?

What if supermarket bakeries shrank their offerings, creating a sense of abundance in tighter real estate? What if independent bakeries baked only what they thought they could sell and no more? Some high-end bakeries sell out of their legendary treats, and they survive customer disappointment. Some even thrive on it.

What if we had to order bread like we order birthday cakes? In some circuits, this is the standard. Community supported bakeries (CSBs) sell subscriptions to loaves, just as community supported agriculture (CSA) farms sell seasonal subscriptions to a farm’s products. Sarah Owens, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, ran BK17 Bakery from her Brooklyn apartment that way. Many microbakery enterprises like hers only bake the loaves that people pre-order. I know these models can’t replace the way most of us buy our bread, but they suggest efficiencies that can help trim production and shift the burden of excess food further upstream.

As a home baker, I can’t bear to let any of the bread I bake go to waste. The remnants become breadcrumbs, and end up in mac & cheese, inside fish cakes, and even in sweet cakes, between berries and whipped cream. Such frugality is evident in old cookbooks, which use breadcrumbs galore. One baker who was trained in Germany once told me that his first task as an apprentice was grinding leftover bread to use in more dough.

Here’s another solution: Toast Ale, the brainchild of food waste activist Tristram Stuart. Launched in England, and now coming to the United States via Chelsea Brewing, the beer is made using 40 percent surplus bread. It replaces fresh grains in the brewing formula, so it preserves resources that would normally go into growing and malting barley, in addition to keeping bread out of the waste stream.

Once upon a time, bread was valuable because it was hard to make. Wheat was tough to grow and mill. Baking bread took time and resources.

Breaking bread remains a symbol of the shared labors involved, and of the necessity of our cooperation. If we could see the work invested by bakers, millers and farmers, whether small-scale or industrial, that symbol might gain real meaning again. And feeding each other, especially the poorest among us, would mean more than disposing of surplus foods.

Leave a Comment

View Comments

  1. Janie
    Thursday, August 31st, 2017
    thanks for writing such an interesting and thoughtful piece. I'm a home baker who also hates waste.
  2. janice stenger
    Friday, September 1st, 2017
    It used to be that day old bread was put on a different shelf and sold for half price. What would be wrong with that? If bread is not selling and there is too much, the market the wise thing to do would be lower the price. Both of these things are seldom done. Same goes for meat and produce. Supposedly the price of beef is much lower right now, but you couldn't see that at my local Safeway. And produce....they don't lower the cost of their tomatoes or lettuce or potatoes when they are in season...there must be horrific waste of these things that don't get sold. Unfortunately,, I live in a small town with only a Safeway to shop at and any competition 20 miles away. We used have a bakery, a meat market, a fish market and a florist. When Safeway built their new store here about 20 years ago, all went out of business. I grow a lot of my own vegetables and fruit but most don't. Some Starbucks guy should start a chain of small green grocers or meat markets across California, where we now pay the same prices for food and even higher than in the midwest yet we do grow most of the veggies. It's ironic, I like to watch what I call the star-buck-ization of produce, such as potatoes and onions and even hamburger buns as they are "artinsaned" to inflated prices. Artisan donuts. Artisan cakes. Artisan dog food. Ka-ching. Grass fed beef (it was all grass fed in our county at one time) Grain fed was the expensive kind.
  3. Steve Bloomfield
    Friday, September 1st, 2017
    What's wrong with sending unsold bread to local food banks? Most urban areas have a well developed transport system for receiving donations from restaurants and grocers, why not bakeries too? \
    Locally Bruggers recently quit selling day-old bagels in favor of donating them, pricing me out of the market.
    As a low income bread lover, I always use some limited cash to buy day-old at my local ethnic bakeries, rather than using SNAP benefits at an Entenmann's Outlet, or regular chain supermarket.
  4. Annee Borthwick
    Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
    For years I appreciated the free bread and English muffins available at St Johns and Bethel Baptist. Then my doctor sent me to a cardiologist for tests. Now I know those free, budget-stretching carbs are a serious part of American obesity, prediabeties, and my own blocks to a healthy older age.
  5. Kim McMann
    Saturday, September 2nd, 2017
    Despite being involved in food related activities for years, this brought things to light that I just never really thought about. It's a great topic to delve into further and I look forward to hearing what others are doing too!
  6. Beth
    Sunday, September 3rd, 2017
    In the community where I live, unused breads and other baked goods from grocery store shelves and local small bakeries are collected for the food banks. When the bread comes into the food banks, the shelves are rarely left with anything on them. I lived in another community that allowed farmers to collect racks full of breads and baked goods for their animals for a few dollars. The contents of the racks were cut open so they could not be resold. The farmers then fed them to their pigs or other animals. Maybe the waste is not as big as you think.
  7. David J. Krupp
    Wednesday, September 6th, 2017
    If the bread is whole wheat, people should eat it.
  8. geo vance
    Wednesday, September 6th, 2017
    You are exactly right. In Guadeloupe, where flour is a valuable commodity because it's only source is via import, baked good are moderately more expensive and still sell out completely every day.
    Baker's shelves are often bare if you arrive too late, but fresh bread is often in the oven if you can wait! Even supermarkets run out by evening.
    Good luck with your goal!