Michael A. Czarnecki, founder of Food for the Hungry and a member of West Allis (Wis.) Council 3095, fills his van with loaves for the needy. (photo by Todd Dacquisto)
The call came in as five members of Msgr. F.P. Arnold Assembly in West Allis, Wis., were participating in an event at the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee. The Fourth Degree Knights were dressed in their regalia, complete with swords and plumed caps, when Michael A. Czarnecki’s phone rang.
The caller was a woman from an area bakery with 100 stacks of bread available for pick-up. Could he send someone soon?
Much to her surprise, the five Knights, still dressed in their tuxedos and capes, arrived at the bakery a short time later. They loaded the surplus bread into their cars and set off to deliver the bounty to meal programs and food pantries.
With the exception of their attire, the bakery visit was all in a day’s work for Czarnecki and the Knights of West Allis Council 3095, who, for the past 12 years, have connected people in need with surplus goods that would have otherwise gone to waste.
Czarnecki is the founder of Food for the Hungry, a Milwaukee-based organization comprised solely of volunteers who pick up and deliver surplus goods, primarily bread and other baked goods, to local community outreach organizations.
Describing their efforts as “charity helping charity,” Czarnecki said that the group has expanded its outreach in recent years to include furniture, bath products, books and clothing. With neither paid staff nor rented space, Food for the Hungry now extends into central Wisconsin and to the Illinois and Michigan state lines.
MULTIPLICATION OF LOAVES
The bread deliveries orchestrated by Council 3095 had humble beginnings. In September 2002, Czarnecki’s wife, Irene, read an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about a charity that needed donations.
Czarnecki had recently been forced to retire at age 59 due to health problems. Rather than letting her husband mope around the house, Irene encouraged him to volunteer.
“My wife saw me sitting at home and said, ‘Isn’t there something you can do?’” explained Czarnecki.
After working as a bread deliveryman for 25 years, Czarnecki knew that a lot of leftover baked goods go to waste. And as a Knight, Czarnecki knew that many low-income people could make good use of that “excess bakery,” as he called it. So he approached his connections in the baking business, and they agreed to give him day-old bread and surplus items, provided the receiving groups would not sell it.
La Causa Crisis Nursery & Respite Center in Milwaukee and Kathy’s House, a non-profit hospital hospitality house, were early recipients of the surplus baked goods. Soon, other requests for food began pouring in. The number of bakeries eager to donate mushroomed, and Czarnecki turned quickly to his brother Knights for financial assistance and volunteer support.
In the early years of the program, Czarnecki made deliveries to about 100 food pantries three times a week, as he and six to eight council members delivered thousands of dollars’ worth of baked goods annually. He put an estimated 40,000 miles on his minivan in the first two years alone.
by 2005, however, the effort had become too large for the council to manage alone, and the group incorporated separately as a non-profit organization, making donations tax deductible and expanding its eligibility for grants.
“It would not have survived without the West Allis Knights of Columbus council,” said John Schmitz, a past grand knight of Council 3095 who now serves as president of Food for the Hungry. He added that other area councils have long supported the program as well.
Mike and Irene Czarnecki are seated beside John Schmitz at a breakfast for homeless veterans in Milwaukee Dec. 26, 2013. (photo by Todd Dacquisto)
Today, Food for the Hungry has more than 450 volunteers who gather baked goods and other products from about 250 donor bakeries, outlet stores, supermarkets, bagel and coffee shops, furniture stores, clothing outlets, and book publishers. Schmitz estimates that weekly donations are worth $3-4 million. These goods are distributed to about 1,700 groups that serve the poor. The recipients include crisis centers, churches of various religious denominations, homes for the elderly and senior centers, schools, food pantries, and homeless shelters.
“There’s hardly a charity in the area that we do not serve,” said Schmitz, adding that there is even an Amish community near Erin, Wis., that accepts donations.
Food for the Hungry has also extended its outreach to veterans in recent years by partnering with the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative. There are approximately 300-400 homeless veterans in the Milwaukee area and another 5,500 at-risk veterans. Many seek assistance from food pantries and similar community services.
In turn, Food for the Hungry hosts two annual fundraising spaghetti dinners and provides food for a number of community events for veterans. On the morning after Christmas Day 2013, volunteers served steaming hot plates of scrambled eggs and bacon, bread, and sweet rolls to about 200 veterans. Before eating, the veterans and those serving the meal gathered in a circle to give thanks for the food and for the volunteers who provided it. Food for the Hungry had delivered all the baked goods for the meal, as well as piles of packaged breads and pastries for the veterans to take home.
In the years since Czarnecki began his bread deliveries, he has received a good deal of local and national recognition for his efforts. And while the accolades are nice, Czarnecki stressed, “Plaques and that don’t mean a thing. What means the most to me are my volunteers … and the people in need that get the product.”
For example, Czarnecki cited a class at Hampton Elementary School in Milwaukee. Students sent him thank-you letters that read, “Dear Mr. Bread Man, we like peanut butter and jelly, we like donuts,” along with other messages that touched his heart.
Czarnecki also credits his “fabulous volunteers,” who sometimes make up to 20 stops a day or work behind the scenes to keep the organization up and running.
For example, Charlie Ruzick, 79, is the type of guy “who makes old age look good,” Czarnecki said. A volunteer almost from the beginning, he is one Food for the Hungry’s six directors.
With a handful of helpers he calls “Charlie’s Angels,” Ruzick not only packs his truck full of bread several times a week, but also pulls his 12-foot trailer laden with “bakery” to dozens of locations throughout Milwaukee. In between bread runs, he picks up donated furniture.
Another volunteer is Jim Luther, who experiences both sides of the outreach as director of the St. Hyacinth Food Pantry and a member of Immaculate Conception Council 4706. A Food for the Hungry board member, he picks up a carload of surplus bread once or twice a week and then distributes it at the pantry he runs on Milwaukee’s south side.
“The mission of the Knights includes charity and patriotism, and we are trying to take care of people in the community, serving the community where there is great need,” said Luther.
As he delivers the baked goods, Luther sees the impact that simple things like a loaf of bread can make.
“The majority of the people are very appreciative,” he added. “We are definitely making a difference in lives in many ways.”
Likewise, Joe Senglaub of St. Bruno Council 6436 in Dousman began making bread runs about three years ago. A financial planner who is studying to be a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Senglaub knew he had time on Saturday mornings. Since then, he’s helped coordinate pickups in the Jefferson County area and also makes regular deliveries to the Fort Atkinson Food Pantry.
“What is amazing is how little effort it takes to make an impact,” he said. “Anybody can drive in a car for a few miles, and unloading bread takes little effort, and yet it does make an impact. It’s amazing how easy this is, and how little time commitment there is, but it’s just a wonderful way to open yourself to the mission of Christ and of the Church.”
“I just don’t like to see people go hungry,” said Czarnecki, explaining what motivates him even in retirement to put in an estimated 50 to 60 hours a week with Food for the Hungry. “Plus, I love to see the smiles on the little ones’ faces when they see me coming with the bread.”
In spite of the wear and tear on his cars and his investment of time, Czarnecki said it’s all worth it.
“I love doing it, and I won’t quit,” he said. “It’s a giving back for all the things I’ve been given.”
MARYANGELA LAYMAN ROMÁN is managing editor of the Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.