Baking is frequently an act of generosity: We bake cakes for birthdays, bread for a neighbor, cookies for a potluck, or scones for a school bake sale.
And for neighbors who don’t have the means, time, or resources to access baked goods, the comfort and happiness from a homemade treat is magnified.
“People experiencing food insecurity should have easy access to freshly baked goods in addition to the commercial items found in most food pantries,” says Tara Mitchell, King Arthur’s Customer Experience Supervisor, who has been baking for 10 years for her local food pantry. But food outreach centers don’t often have baked goods to offer those in need: Donations of shelf-stable non-perishable food, and sometimes fresh produce, are more common. But this is a challenge that can be met by home bakers with time and resources.“It’s so easy to bake for donations,” Tara says.
Donating your baked goods is a worthy cause, but one that requires a little advance planning to understand the regulations around how, what, and where.
I asked several King Arthur employee-owners who regularly donate baked goods to local organizations for their stories, as well as tips and advice for starting your own volunteer baking journey.
Seek out organizations in need
First, seek out a local organization. Homeless shelters, churches with outreach projects, food pantries, and other social services organizations are good places to look. Call and ask about their needs: See if they accept donations, and if they have any regulations around homemade baked goods.
Cast a wide net in your community. Tara suggests looking beyond listed non-profit groups and recommends calling to check with your local town officials and churches. “Many community groups that provide free meals welcome donated baked goods,” she explains. “Some have not gone through the process to become official 501(c)(3) non-profits but are providing a huge service within our communities.”
Community fridges and mutual aid pantries are another place to look. Grassroots programs like these are good options for places to donate, as they generally rely entirely on individual donations.
Ask how you can help
Many organizations will give you a resounding yes when you offer to donate. Beyond that, it’s up to you to ask — or consider on your own — how you could be most helpful. For instance, baking birthday treats for children in shelters who otherwise wouldn’t have a celebration of their own. This is how King Arthur’s Senior Recipe Developer Molly Marzalek-Kelly got into volunteer baking, which she’s been doing for four years. In 2019, she was part of a King Arthur baking initiative in celebration of our 2019 Recipe of the Year, Classic Birthday Cake. For a full year, the team baked a birthday cake every month and donated them to the Upper Valley Haven — a local organization that provides shelter, food, and assistance to those struggling with poverty — to share at their after-school kids’ program.
“I was truly blown away at the happiness that radiated from the kids’ megawatt smiles,” says Molly. “The program director shared that this cake was sometimes the first birthday treat that many of these children had ever received.” Molly reached out to the Haven to find out how she could continue to help, and she’s been delivering monthly treats ever since.
Some organizations, especially local food pantries, may offer opportunities to bake in their kitchens, rather than dropping off items baked at home. For example, Melanie Wanders, a Research and Development Specialist at King Arthur, volunteer bakes in the Family Kitchen at the Jack Byrne Center for Palliative and Hospice Care at Dartmouth Medical Center. There, visiting family members — plus doctors and nurses — can enjoy a baked good at all hours of the day, in addition to homemade meals and snacks. “Patient families often find their way to the kitchen by the smell of cinnamon and butter wafting through the building, where they pick up a treat and enjoy a small reprieve from the difficult situation they’re dealing with,” says Melanie.
Find the right recipe
Tara opts for items that can be frozen easily if not picked up right away: yeast breads, rolls, quick breads, individual focaccia, cornbread, and cookies are some of her go-to’s. “Our food pantry freezes baked goods before they get past their prime, so patrons can shop from the freezers as well as the shelves.”
Tara has favorite recipes she sticks with, like Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread and Buttery Sourdough Buns, but also tries new ones since she’s baking so often. Consider nutritional value as well; Tara typically incorporates whole grains in whatever she bakes. “I’ve also become aware that the consumers may have dental issues, so I try to bake soft things and don’t add ingredients like nuts or dried fruit,” she says. And don’t be afraid to get feedback and adapt. “I check in with the food pantry to see if what I’ve been donating is moving or if there is a need for something else.”
Molly and another King Arthur employee-owner, Kye Ameden, have kept up the birthday baking tradition for the Upper Valley Haven, baking cupcakes each month. “Staff at The Haven lets us know at the start of every school year if there are any food restrictions to be mindful of, and they also provide a list of first names and birthdays so we can craft each child a special cupcake topper when it’s their birthday,” Molly explains. If the group or organization doesn’t initially share this information, you can always ask!
When Melanie bakes at the palliative care center, she checks in with the chefs who run the kitchen. Often, they have requests — there’s a run on cookies, or patients request something specific, like a certain muffin. “My usual rotation includes family favorites like snickerdoodles, oatmeal raisin cookies, peanut butter cookies, etc.,” reports Melanie. “Sometimes the kitchen will have overripe bananas or other fruit to use, and I turn to our website to come up with ideas of what to make. One favorite mash-up is the base of this Banana Snacking Cake topped with the streusel from this Blueberry Buckle Coffee Cake. I only have two hours from gathering ingredients to cleaning up for each baking session, so having quick, easy recipes that are reliable and crowd-pleasing is important!”
Check for any restrictions
Before you start baking, check if there are any nutritional or allergy requirements, as well as any specific needs around packaging and delivery. When Tara bakes for the Upper Valley Haven’s Grab and Go Lunch Program, for instance, “items need to be prepared at home, individually packaged, and delivered in the morning,” she says.
Local organizations accepting donations will rarely have formal kitchen requirements (unlike those you have to follow when selling food prepared at home), but still be mindful of your environment. “I’m very careful when cooking or baking for others, maintain a clean kitchen/work area, and wear gloves when handling/packaging the baked goods,” Tara explains.
Even if there aren’t specific guidelines around dietary needs, it’s helpful to label your baked goods with any allergens that may be present (usually wheat, milk, eggs, nuts, coconut), even if it means simply including a note with that information.
Think about packaging
If you’re baking at home and dropping off your donation, you’ll need to transport your baked goods, so packaging matters. For small, handheld items like cookies and baked goods, Tara likes to use 100% recyclable food-safe, non-waxed paper bags. You can easily seal the bags with a sticker or a small piece of tape.
For larger items like cakes and quick breads, look for disposable baking pans, which allow you to simply bake, cool, and go. In lieu of disposable pans, Tara opts for these single bread bags, which are large enough to fit a loaf of bread or a round pan of rolls, and help prevent baked goods from drying out.
Lean into your motivation
Spending your time and skills baking for others is an act of generosity. There are so many worthy reasons to do it: Think about what yours are to stay motivated and consistent.
For Tara, it was a way to teach others how to take care of their community. “When two of my grandchildren were younger,” she explains, “they spent every Monday with me. We baked together in the morning, then we delivered to the food pantry in the afternoon. My grandchildren learned from a very young age about the gift of baking for others, as well as the hard truth that not everyone has enough food or even a place to prepare food.”
For Melanie, part of her decision to bake in a hospital setting was a childhood connection. “Being in a hospital reminds me of making rounds with my dad, who is a physician, when I was little. While my parents live far away in Ohio, being at the Jack Byrne Center always makes me feel closer to my dad, but it also allows me to use my skills to bring someone joy, if just for a moment, during a difficult time.”
“I encourage bakers to never forget the power that baking has,” Melanie adds. “Creating, sharing, making connections, and showing others that we care about them is something this world needs more of! Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Start baking today and change your world one cookie, cupcake, lemon bar, or cinnamon bun at a time.”
If you're baking cupcakes for a special birthday donation, make sure you decorate them like a pro! Kye has many go-to methods, ranging from easy to advanced to fit every skill level:
Cover photo by Danielle Sykes; food styling by Liz Neily.