Making dough and baking bread: Artisan bakeries doing social good

The article below first appeared on the community funded collaborative journalism platform that I work on called The articles produced there are released on a creative commons non-commercial licence which means I can share it with you here, confident that the writer has already been paid for his work. The writer is, Rich McEachran who is a freelance writer specialising in sustainability, global development and the role of business in society. I wanted to share his work here because I think it’s a good read, I hope you enjoy it too.

Making dough and baking bread: Artisan bakeries doing social good by Rich McEachran
They say baking is cathartic and that the process of making bread can be good for mental wellbeing. Inspired by a passion for baking and social change, a number of artisan bakeries have been set up to prove just this. There’s the Better Health Bakery in Hackney, and the Yorkshire-based Veterans’ Artisan Bakery, which is supported by celebrity chef Rosemary Shrager and is helping ex-service men to rebuild their lives.

Measuring, mixing, whisking and kneading – there is something pleasurable about the process. I have a bit of experience in this area myself; a part-time job in a supermarket used to involve piping jam into doughnuts and then coating them in sugar. It may not have helped me through a difficult time, but the creative and sensual act of making the doughnuts gave me focus during long and early shifts.

“There is a mass of research to show that working with your hands in this way is therapeutic,” says Matt Fountain, founder of the Freedom Bakery in Glasgow, a social enterprise that will train and employ ex-offenders.

Fountain is currently developing his social business model and plans to open later this year. He gave up a funded doctorate at the University of Oxford so he could pursue a more socially conscientious career. But why bread? The beauty of it, Fountain says, is that it can connect people from all walks of life.

“Let’s get back to basics,” exclaims Fountain, who is currently based at the Centre for Drugs Misuse Research. “We are talking about bread: a staple food with quotidian (everyday), social, religious and philosophical significance. Cooking is different and people’s knowledge of recipes, cuisine, and even simple ingredients, will differ widely. [But] we can at least start with a uniform understanding of what bread is and how we eat it.”

Fountain wants the Freedom Bakery to pride itself on this philosophy. Its mission is to help those caught up in the vicious circle of prison and re-offending to turn away from crime, by recruiting them and using baking as part of their rehabilitation.

The boys, as Fountain likes to refer to them, are likely to come into the kitchen with few cooking skills and little knowledge of how to bake a loaf. Essentially though, bread is made from four ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. The process is relatively simple and the impact immediate.

“In a day, we can train people to make a good, simple loaf of bread,” claims Fountain. “Making bread is all about the art of developing your dexterity, mixed with the science of formula and timing. The boys can see their successes instantly, and this does much for early self-esteem building.

“Our main objective is to always nurture their sensitivity to working with their hands, whilst improving their application to formula and timing. This repertoire is key to keeping the guys interested.”

The impact these artisan bakeries can have goes far beyond the playful repetition of cracking eggs, whisking and beating though. Baking is not just enjoyable; it’s labour intensive and helps acquire new transferable skills.

“It’s not just about allowing for creativity; it’s about using their own confidence and ideas to further develop their craft,” explains Fountain. “The more confidence, and dare I say it ‘conviction’ they gain, the more they learn from their work, and the more employable they will be.

“Like with any professional working in the food industry, my team will need food and hygiene qualifications, which will allow them to be certified to work in any kitchen,” he continues. He’s quick to point out that there is a difference between training people for accreditation and simply training people to tick a box and make your organisation look like it’s doing social good.

Artisan bakeries that operate as social enterprises need to sell a lot of bread (and make a lot of dough) to be commercially viable. To do this they need to deliver on their social outcomes and they also need the support of the local community – none more so than artisan bakeries that employ ex-offenders as their core staff. People may be wary of ex-offenders being rehabilitated into, and employed within, their community. In these instances, preconceptions need to broken down.

“We bring the public into contact with people they would not normally have interaction with, and through our product and service, leave them with a positive reflection on what [our boys] are achieving,” says Fountain. ”Changing opinion surrounding ex-offenders has massive impact; it serves a social purpose, as well as an economic one.”

The belief is that the more the public begin to accept ex-offenders being reintegrated into their communities, the more likely they are to stay in sustainable employment, rebuild their lives and be able to contribute to the local economy. And for every ex-offender that he manages to keep in employment, Fountain claims he’ll be able to “save the Scottish taxpayer £940,000 in associated criminal justice and social costs”.

So, is a loaf of bread baked by someone with a criminal past any different than one you can buy from a local shop or supermarket? Probably not. Are people more likely to buy from a bakery run by ex-offenders? Again, not necessarily. But with artisan bread becoming ever more popular, Fountain hopes to tap into the market and produce luxury bread and cakes (including modern twists on Scottish classics) which, first and foremost, can be competitive in Glasgow’s food industry. The Freedom Bakery’s selling point will not be who it employs, but what it bakes.

Fountain believes that seeing the bakery as a business with a social aim, and not simply as a charity that supports ex-offenders, makes it a worthy investment to interested parties. He is so confident, that it will also be grant free and will receive no public subsidy.

“The Freedom Bakery will do things differently,” concludes Fountain, referring to the bakery’s sustainability. “I believe it can make a real difference.”

Artisan bakeries can give people at risk from crime, drugs and mental health problems a focus. They can learn new skills and hone a craft. They can make dough, in both sense of the word, and have a social impact long after the doors open.


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