Granola With a Heart

Mary Molina knows what it’s like to ask for help. When she and her husband lost their family business, things got tough—they were forced to rely on social services and food pantries to put food on their table. Once he found a new job, Molina’s husband, Ernie, started eating fast food from dollar menus to save money. After he started gaining weight, he asked Molina to buy him some healthier snacks. But Molina wasn’t pleased with what she found in supermarket aisles. In addition to all the chemical ingredients she saw on food labels, her children have soy allergies, and finding a healthy soy-free snack proved nearly impossible.

So Molina rolled up her sleeves and headed into the kitchen herself.

Mary Molina
Mary Molina

A self-admitted terrible baker—“My cupcakes end up like lead weights,” Molina laughs—she decided to stick with something simple: granola bars. She grabbed honey, oats and dried fruits that she had in her pantry and whipped up a batch of bars. “Forty-five minutes later, I had this ooey-gooey, yummy smelling bar. I was a little hesitant to try it, because again—not the best baker—but I cut into it and I’m like, ‘Wow, this isn’t bad!’” Molina says.

Her husband agreed, and so did his coworkers. They all wanted to purchase Molina’s granola bars.

“No, no, no,” Molina told her husband. “I made a whole tray. I’ve got a lot of granola bars. I’ll just pack you extra in your lunch tomorrow.”

The next day, Molina received another call from her husband. “I don’t think you understand. One of these guys wants to order 30 bars. Another guy wants 40 bars. I think there’s something you need to look into,” he said.

“I’ve only made two trays so far,” protested Molina. “What if I can’t replicate it?”

“Well, try!” Ernie said.

Molina did try, and she’s succeeded. She’s taken her business, Lola Granola Bar, from her home kitchen to a gluten-free facility that stocks Whole Foods, Fairway Markets, Amazon and more. And she’s never forgotten what it felt like to receive help from others.

Once Molina saw how many people were asking if her bars were gluten free, she saw a need that wasn’t being met. Many customers needed a safe, gluten-free snack for their families, just as she needed safe, soy-free snacks for hers. So she started to use special gluten-free oats, switched to a gluten-free facility and decided to go for gluten-free certification.

“I just had more and more people coming up to me, so I [thought] ‘Why don’t I just taken this step?’ It might be a little extra money, but in the long run, it will benefit us, and it will really benefit the consumer,” Molina says.

Her family’s history has made Molina and her husband deeply sympathetic to hunger and need in their community.

They donate a certain amount of bars from every batch to the local food bank. Today they’re part of the BackPack Program through the food bank in Westchester, New York. Every Friday, their granola bars are packaged up along with other food and snacks for youth who may be at risk for hunger over the weekend. On weekdays, the children are guaranteed at least breakfasts and lunches through the school system.

“It was important to us not only for kids to be able to enjoy our bars but also for [at-risk] kids who are gluten free to have an option over the weekend of getting something [they can actually eat],” she says.

This is Molina at her core: See a problem, find a solution. And throughout it all, she stays positive, even on her worst days. “If you asked me 10 years ago would you be a baker, a granola bar maker, I would have [said], ‘No…why would I do that?’ Molina says.

She even considers her family’s hard times part of “a gift that was dropped in my lap.” Her exposure to social services and the food bank enabled her to see things she had not seen before.

“And I saw goodness out of it. I saw how I could help make things better,” she says. “I’m just so thankful that I get to be part of the food bank, but in a different way—where we’re giving back now.”

—Nicki Porter
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