Portland Public Schools had just closed. The state was shutting down. The numbers of COVID-19 cases were rising rapidly in the US. And Whitney Rutz was having a hard time. The Northeast Portland–based federal contractor could see no end in sight and, with two friends diagnosed with the virus, had what she described as “a good scream cry session.” There was only one thing for it: she set out to bake her way better.

“I started to spiral into despair,” recalls Rutz of that week in mid-March. “So I said, I’m going to bake a giant cinnamon roll to cheer the house up.”

Whitney Rutz with a roll-in-progress

It was the first, it turns out, of dozens such rolls, which Rutz is now baking on a daily basis to send to health care workers and raise money for the Oregon Food Bank—drumming up more than $20,000 for the state’s largest hunger relief organization to date. Oregonians have been galvanized by these 12-inch-wide, five-pound swirls of comfort carbs slathered in decadent cream cheese frosting. And they’ve been putting their money where their mouths are—or where their taste buds are, at least.  

The food bank’s roll call began, though, with that first glorious bake, and Rutz’s social media post about its creation that immediately had friends and followers clamoring for their own. “I said to my husband, ‘What if I made a cinnamon roll and auctioned it off for charity? How much do you think people would spend?’” she recalls. “I truly thought people would spend $50 on it, and I would donate it to charity, and that would be the end of it.”  

But the first roll made $300. And people immediately asked her when the next bid window would open. So she made another. And another. The rolls just kept selling for more and more, with the third one going for $1,125. The Oregon Food Bank responded with a personal fundraising page, and the mission evolved from auctioning off every roll to making a roll for a health care worker for every $500 donated.

A friend, singer k.d. lang, urged Rutz to join Twitter with a promise to retweet every post: Giant Ass Cinnamon Roll was born, and word traveled fast. “I thought maybe we would raise $2,000,” says Rutz. “We are at $17,056—that’s 33 cinnamon rolls!” (Since we talked, Rutz’s total has passed the $20,000 mark, equating to more than 50,000 meals, she says.)

Even when the threshold per roll was increased to $1,000, the donations kept coming—from $5 to $5,000. Now the Giant Ass Cinnamon Roll challenge has switched approach: the highest donation of the day wins, with the roll going to the individual donor or to a health care worker in their name.

And in case the mammoth swirls of gooey deliciousness weren’t enticement enough, Pink Martini singer Storm Large has joined the campaign, decorating the boxes and delivering them along with their contents to their destinations. Lang also donated two cast-iron skillets to the cause, and now production has increased with the addition of Rutz’s twin sister, who is donating her own time and kitchen to the effort. And every single penny goes to Oregon Food Bank, with Rutz footing the bill for all the ingredients.

“It’s not a cheap endeavor,” admits Rutz. “But I am still employed and am so grateful for that. I’m so happy to do it, my heart has not felt this good in so long. And I truly don’t know how I would feel if I didn’t have something happy to focus on right now.”

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