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She's fed the hungry for decades with 'throwaway bread' she leaves on her porch

February 28, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.
Shauna Devenport, a.k.a. the "Bread Lady," unloads her van at her Salt Lake City home in February. (Photo by Kate Nielsen)

About 30 years ago, Shauna Devenport discovered the world of throwaway bread.

She went to a grocery store near her home in Salt Lake City to pick up baked goods the store had set aside for a local food bank when a salesclerk pointed out something jarring: hundreds of edible loaves of bread were being thrown out because they were a day or two past their expiration date.

"I cried all the way home thinking of the waste," Devenport said.

She went back to the store and requested the loaves that would otherwise be discarded, then set them on the front porch of her small brick bungalow and put the word out that anyone could come by and take whatever they needed. Then she did it again.

"I'd put it out and an hour or so later, it was gone," she said. "People would show up from all over. I saw there was a real need out there."

Devenport, a mother of four, asked her neighbors if they'd be willing to help her pick up the store's leftover bread every day. About a dozen agreed to pitch in.

Three decades on, the "Bread Lady" as Devenport is known, is still going strong.

Now 67, she admits that she's a bit slower and grayer than when she started her free front porch food pantry around 1992 but she is still determined to help feed anyone in need.

"It's a labor of love for her," said Kate Nielsen, Devenport's daughter who lives around the corner and often pitches in to unload donated food with her two kids - Conner, 16, and Madi, 13.

"My mom has had some health issues over the years, but nothing can keep her from her work on the porch," added Nielsen, 46. "She now has second and third generations showing up for groceries."

"It's heartbreaking that so many need help, but they're very grateful to my mom," she said. "Over the years, she has fed thousands and thousands."

Devenport, a retired airline baggage handler, said that about 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is thrown out every year, while about 1 in 10 Americans live in food-insecure households, according to a 2021 U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

Her grocery runs in the 1990s to pick up expired bread soon expanded to include blemished produce, deli items, canned goods and milk that was set to be thrown away at several markets, she said, noting that one grocer once donated several cases of muscle-building drinks and a box of caviar.

She said grocery stores won't sell an item that's beyond its "sell by" date, even though it can be perfectly fine for consumption.

"I've never heard of anyone getting sick from something they've taken from the porch," she said, noting that people are often waiting to pick up perishables as she unloads them from her van.

Some people would come to her porch to get a package of rolls for dinner, while others would bring a wagon or cart and load up with enough food to last for a week.

"I never questioned them, never asked for names or how much money they made," Devenport said. "My attitude has always been that anyone is welcome. We see a lot of homeless people, but mostly, the people who need this food are the working poor."

With the cost of groceries skyrocketing, she said people often tell her they wouldn't be able to feed their families if they couldn't come to her porch.

"The need out there is frightening," Devenport said. "Even people with jobs are having a hard time affording their rent and buying groceries. When we put stuff out on the porch today, there will already be people waiting. Within minutes, it's gone."

For the past several years, Devenport hasn't picked up expired food from local grocery stores because there isn't as much to go around, she said. Most of the stores she frequented now donate their day-old groceries to the Utah Food Bank instead of to her.

Instead, Devenport said she now stops by several church food pantries and rescue missions a few times each week to pick up surplus and donated bread and produce donated by the public, restaurants and food charities.

"The idea is that nothing should be wasted," she said. "This is perfectly good food that can feed hundreds of people every month."

Devenport remembers a time when she and her husband, Jeff Devenport, needed many of the surplus items that they unloaded onto their front porch every week. Besides food, they regularly received donations of shoes, clothing and furniture from neighbors and others who were familiar with their porch as a place people in need would visit.

"My first grandchild was premature and we weren't in a position at the time to afford diapers," she said. "My daughter was a teenage mom and we were wondering what to do when the men's rescue mission called. 'We've received a strange donation of a bunch of diapers,' they said. 'Do you know anyone who could use them?'"

Devenport ended up with enough diapers for her grandson and dozens of other families who stopped by her front porch that day in 1996, she said.

"Another time, somebody asked me, 'Do you happen to have a trundle bed?'" Devenport recalled. "I told them I'd let them know. Five minutes later, my phone rang: 'Shauna, we have a trundle bed. Do you know of anybody who needs one?'"

"There are blessings on the porch every day," she said.

Devenport said she occasionally encounters an ornery or angry person, but she has never felt threatened.

"We get some people who are chemically or mentally imbalanced, but I'm not afraid of them," she said. "I'll try to talk to them, and most of the time, they'll calm down. With most people, it's a matter of trying to understand what they're going through, so they don't feel alone."

She said it doesn't bother her to have piles of boxes on her porch for a few hours every week, because the food isn't there for long.

"Sadly, it's gone immediately," she said. "That's how badly people need it."

One of Devenport's neighbors, Marren Copeland, said her family of seven has relied on the Bread Lady to get them through the week many times over the years.

"We've taken home fresh produce, meat, bread, you name it," said Copeland, 39. "Shauna also helped outfit all of my children during their first 10 years of life. Clothes, backpacks, sporting goods - she's helped us with it all."

Copeland and her kids now regularly volunteer to help Devenport unload her van after grocery pickups from rescue missions and church pantries.

"And when we clean out our house of toys or clothes in good condition, we'll take them back to the porch," she said. "It's nice to know it will go to someone else who can use it."

Copeland said she is touched to see how Devenport's front porch changes lives for the better every week.

"You can see the true desperation in the eyes of some of the people who come," she said. "You know that they're eating because of the porch. What Shauna does for people is more than a hobby to her. It's a calling."

Devenport doesn't make as many donation pickups as she used to, but she said she hopes to keep going as long as she can. She took time off when she had a hip replacement and shoulder surgery, she said, and part of her goal as she healed was to get back to stocking her porch.

"It started with a few loaves of bread, but it's now much more than that," Devenport said. "When somebody tells you, 'My kitchen cabinets were empty and now I can feed my family,' that's life changing. That's when I know I have to keep going."

photo Shauna Devenport unloads her van with granddaughter Madi Nielsen. "The need out there is frightening," Devenport says. "Even people with jobs are having a hard time affording their rent and buying groceries. When we put stuff out on the porch today, there will already be people waiting. Within minutes, it's gone." (Photo by Kate Nielsen)
photo People in need have come to Shauna Devenport's front porch for free bread and produce in Salt Lake City for three decades. (Photo by Kate Nielsen)
photo Shauna Devenport organizes the front porch of her Salt Lake City bungalow after picking up surplus bread and produce this month. (Photo by Kate Nielsen)

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