As the founder and owner of Bread Alone bakery in Woodstock, I built my business to serve the local community. While Bread Alone was growing to its current size (we now produce 50,000 pounds of certified organic bread every week), I began to sell loaves at New York City green markets, about 100 miles away. I was happy to donate bread to local food banks and community organizations feeding New York City’s homeless and hungry, but it never occurred to me that I could apply my knowledge and experience to the problem of hunger on another continent. To anyone in a “local” or “artisan” food business who thinks that charity begins at home, have I got a story for you!
Trip to South Africa
Periodically, I’ve consulted with large grocery companies that want to set up artisan-style bakeries in their stores. It’s always interesting to meet new people and see how bread is made and marketed at this level. Seven years ago, I accepted a consulting job at Pick n Pay, South Africa’s biggest supermarket chain. I had never consulted outside the U.S., so I was especially excited about the work.
Before my trip, I bought a copy of Jim Wooten’s book, “We Are All the Same,” which tells the story of Nkosi, an HIV-positive Zulu boy; Gail Johnson, the white South African activist who adopted him; and their fight for the rights of mothers and children with HIV and AIDS. Nkosi and Gail gained worldwide support as they barnstormed the U.S. to raise money for Nkosi’s Haven, a home for women and children with HIV and AIDS. Nkosi died before its completion, but Gail persevered. Today, the organization shelters, feeds and offers medical care and counseling to some 200 women and children, all of whom would otherwise be homeless and hungry.
By coincidence, friends I dined with before departing for Johannesburg knew Gail through their involvement in a U.S.-based AIDS organization. Upon my arrival, I gave Gail a call. Her enthusiasm and force of will crackled over the line; she insisted that I teach a bread-baking class at the shelter. As I wrapped up my third day in the Pick n Pay kitchen, I grabbed some ingredients, took a cab through a series of the city’s toughest neighborhoods and ended at a barbed wire-enclosed compound with a forbiddingly secured gate. Once that gate slammed behind me, the welcome couldn’t have been warmer. Gail, who has flaming red hair and a reputation for colorful language, introduced herself and a swarm of children. We all made our way to the shelter’s kitchen.
As we mixed our first whole grain bread dough, I fielded questions that I get wherever I teach: “Is brown bread really better than white bread?” “Will it taste good?” “Is it hard to make?” In a couple of hours, the moms and kids were able to taste what they had baked. Most of them agreed that, even though it was healthy, it was also good. Gail and I made plans for another class. And then she made a surprising leap: “We have to open a bakery here for the kids!” Having known Gail for just a few hours, I could already see that refusal was not an option.
A bakery is born
I stayed in Johannesburg a few more days, returning each day to Nkosi’s Haven to work with the women on baking. After I returned, I emailed photos of the baking classes to friends and some of the shots wound up on the desk of the editor at the Woodstock Times. Never underestimate the power of the local newspaper! After a short piece about my trip appeared, a retired anesthesiologist named Neil Ratner offered to partner with me to help make Gail’s bakery a reality. Neil and his wife Leann had raised money for Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund and had created sustainable bush clinics in Kenya. They put me in touch with Zelda La Grange, Mandela’s assistant and the spokesperson for the Mandela Foundation, who was immediately on board. The idea for the South African Whole Grain Bread Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to establishing community-run bakeries producing fresh, high-quality, whole-grain bread, was born.
Before the Ratners and I could begin to raise money for the first bakery, we had to figure out how to control construction costs. At this critical point, a conversation with Richard Wilkes, the former CEO of the South African baking supply company Macadams International, changed the course of the project. Macadams had constructed mobile bakeries inside shipping containers for the South African military. If we were to fabricate our bakery inside a container, not only could we control construction costs (each small unit costs about $45,000), we would have a model that could be used anywhere in the country and beyond.
During the next three years, we won a 5,000 euros BID Challenge grant, which gave us the credibility to raise more money in the U.S. We formulated a recipe, in consultation with public health experts at Harvard and McCord Hospital in Durban, for a nutritious, calorie-packed whole-wheat bread fortified with whole milk powder, soy meal, sunflower oil and vitamins.
A program that can be replicated
When the container bakery arrived at Nkosi’s Haven, I flew in to train Gail’s handpicked staff of women. The photographs of opening day convey the joy we all felt about producing those first loaves. There was music and dancing. Moms and kids paraded around showing off the bread and gobbling it up. At first, the bakers made just enough bread for the residents of Nkosi’s Haven. But their output quickly increased; they now turn out 60 loaves every 25 minutes. In addition to producing bread for everyone at the shelter, the bakery donates close to 200 loaves a day to a nearby soup kitchen, enough to feed 1,300 children. More bread, which goes for five-and-a-half rand — about 75 cents — a loaf, is sold to markets and street vendors. Within a year we expect the bakery will be self-supporting.
This February I flew to Cape Town to attend the opening of SAWGBP’s second bakery, at the Baphumelele Children’s Home. This facility is an orphanage and community center in Khayelitsha, the second biggest township in South Africa (after Soweto). Founded by charismatic activist and educator Rosalia Mashale, the bakery was funded by a generous donation from the Collette Foundation and from the yoga nonprofit Off the Mat and Into the World. Rosie’s bakery, staffed by unemployed people from Khayelitsha, provides nutritious whole grain bread to the children of the orphanage as well as providing income and stability for Rosie’s community. It also trains and employs some of Cape Town’s poorest inhabitants.
Until I met Gail Johnson and baked bread with the moms and kids at Nkosi’s Haven, I thought my local approach to baking and business meant that my activism would necessarily be local too. I wouldn’t have believed that I could have an impact on hunger in a place as far away as South Africa. My experience there showed me that the small-scale artisan approach to food production that I’ve been practicing for my entire professional life can in fact be applied to improving the health and nutrition of people a continent away. Shepherding SAWGBP as it has grown from an idea to two productive nonprofit bakeries has convinced me that food artisans with small businesses make uniquely qualified volunteers when it comes to figuring out how to feed people all over the world. Share what you know about food, wherever you travel. You never know where it might lead or who you might be able to feed in the process.
Daniel Leader is the owner of Bread Alone, the artisan bakery he founded in 1983 in Woodstock, N.Y. Dan teaches bread-making at the Institute of Culinary Education and is an adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of America. Two of his four books are IACP Cookbook award winners: Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands, and Local Breads.
Top Photo: Daniel Leader. Credit: Ditte Isager