The bread rescuers

Moved by a single bag of groceries headed for the trash, a husband-and-wife team has helped feed hundreds by collecting surplus food for more than a decade

Harry Kaiser was buying milk at his neighborhood convenience store when he saw a bag of baked goods on the floor and reached in for a loaf of bread.

“Don’t take that,” the clerk told him. “We’re going to throw it away.”

The father of nine, who knew well the value of a bag of groceries, asked if he could have the food to give away. When the clerk agreed, he picked up the bag and walked six blocks to a shelter for abused women and children, which gratefully accepted the food.

That was 14 years ago, and the Kingfield man’s simple act of connecting leftover food with hungry people has grown into a daily journey to link surplus with need.

Three mornings a week, Harry and his wife Shirley drive to a local grocery store to load outdated cakes and cookies, rolls and bread into their 12-year-old station wagon and take them home to sort. Five afternoons a week, they deliver the food to several small programs serving hungry people in south Minneapolis.

The station wagon had 32,000 miles when the Kaisers bought it six years ago; now it has more than 74,000 -- many of them bread miles. The Kaisers have added miles as well -- Harry, who is legally blind, will be 84 in November; Shirley is 74.

“It just kept growing,” Shirley said.

The Kaisers’ daily delivery route takes them to a drop-in center for the homeless, a church shelter, a rehabilitation center for Native Americans working to kick drug habits, two community centers and an AIDS hospice, all within a few miles of their home.

Once a week, they bring bread to a senior-citizen apartment house in their neighborhood, where many residents can’t afford both required medicine and sufficient food. If one of the groups has received a surplus of donations -- say, milk or potatoes -- the Kaisers will redistribute them to other centers.

But first on the Kaisers’ delivery schedule and in their hearts is the Peace House, a small drop-in center started by the late Sr. Rose Tillmans as a place of hospitality for street people along that rough stretch of Franklin Avenue near I-35W.

Funded entirely by donations, the Peace House opens daily at 10 a.m. to serve coffee and, if Harry and Shirley have been successful, sweet rolls. From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., the doors are locked and guests and staff share an ecumenical meditation. Then lunch is served. Sandwiches are often made with bread the Kaisers brought.

Shirley and Harry admire the Peace House volunteers' commitment and Sr. Rose’s mission to the drunks and drifters, the lost and confused, who are welcomed nowhere else in the world. And they admired the moxie of the small nun who often stepped between angry men, reminded them that this was a place of peace and calmly settled their differences.

Their own commitment is enduring and self-effacing. They are proud of their children and grandchildren and see their work as a way to repay the grace they’ve received. If Harry is ailing, their daughter or grandson will help Shirley collect and distribute the food. “It gives us something to do which we think is important,” she explains.

They have one frustration: Even in a prosperous city such as Minneapolis, the needs of hungry people exceed the supply of available food. The convenience store where Harry first collected excess food no longer gives it away. Instead, it’s thrown into dumpsters, and a corporate official told the Kaisers that employees who violated the corporate ban on donations would be fired. Even the grocery store that is the couple’s most reliable source of food has cut back its production, and doesn’t have as much surplus these days.

“Lately, we’re hurting for bread,” Shirley explained. “We’re not getting as much, and we like to distribute something every day all week.”