Gig Harbor’s Lasagna Lady
Providing trays of comfort food to friends, neighbors and essential workers
By Dan Aznoff
While most members of her community used their federal stimulus checks to pay rent and buy a few necessities, one Gig Harbor woman turned her payment from the government into trays of homemade lasagna as her own delicious message of hope during a difficult time.
Michelle Brenner was inspired to cook dozens of her thick, rich and gooey homemade goodness in her own kitchen when she returned home from a shopping trip to the local grocery store.
“After being furloughed from my job (as a retail manager) in March, I offered to pick up some essential items for a few of my neighbors,” she recalled. “I was shocked to learn that many of my neighbors had had frozen lasagnas listed as part of their regular diet.
“As an Italian and somebody who loves to cook, I knew there had to be a better way by simply doing something that I love to do.”
Her first order of business was to post an offer on the local Facebook page to bake lasagnas for any of her neighbors. She started her endeavor with the $1,200 she had received as part of the first relief program approved by Congress.
“I did not charge anything for the lasagnas, and donations were not required,” she said with a smile. “But that did not stop people from dropping off cards, balloons, flowers and even bottles of wine as their way of saying thank you.”
One grateful person even left her a T-shirt that identifies her as the Lasagna Lady. It is a moniker that she wears proudly.
After dipping into her own savings to continue baking dozens of lasagnas and leaving them on the porch of her home each day, friends encouraged her to initiate a fund she could use to provide the cash she would need to continue to prepare six- to eight-pound trays of her now-famous comfort food.
Her initial request on social media raised more than $5,000.
Brenner’s original goal was to bake 1,000 lasagnas. As of mid-June, she had received more than $20,000 in donations and blew past her original target.
“These are not simple dishes or diet food,” she explained. “These are big, full, rich lasagnas.”
She told a reporter from a local television station that she cautions people not to get on the scale the day after they sample one of her creations.
After the number of requests outpaced the capacity of the kitchen in her home, one generous business owner arranged for Brenner to have access to a commercial kitchen.
Her positive attitude is as bubbly as one of her signature dishes. The Gig Harbor resident said she plans to continue making her lasagnas as long as there are people in her community in need.
“This is my very small way of spreading some positive energy … and extra calories,” she said, noting that she has received orders from hungry people in every county in the state as well as from people who have driven from as far away as Oregon and Idaho to pick up their dinners.
According to the chef, her lasagnas have been dropped off for essential workers at police departments, fire stations and health-care facilities as far away as Edmonds in Snohomish County, a delivery of more than 60 miles.
So far, Brenner has resisted suggestions that she open her own restaurant. She has also declined suggestions that she is a hero or that she should run for mayor of Gig Harbor.
“After working long hours and weekends (in retail), I have never felt as satisfied as I am right now,” she said. “Working full time has left me very little time to get involved in any way with my community or be part of any local clubs. Baking lasagnas has given me the chance to make a difference in my own community and have more of an impact on people’s lives.”
The mother of one grown daughter hopes her efforts will ease the financial burden that the statewide shutdown has created for many of her neighbors. She is especially concerned about the welfare of the elderly members of her community.
“What started out as just the offer to pick up a few groceries for my neighbors has grown into something fulfilling that I truly never expected,” she concluded. “My lasagna is one way that I can give back and make a difference.”
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer based in Mukilteo, Washington. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California and has received acclaim for his work in the areas of sustainable energy and the insurance industry. He is the author of three books that document colorful periods of history in the history of Washington.