Baking bread, making a career

Jane Mason's Bread Angels program teaches participants how to bake bread – a highly sought-after skill – and set up their own microbusiness. 

Stephane Mahe/Reuters/File
A baker makes bread in the 'Les Fosses Noires' area in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, western France, January 20, 2014. Baking bread is being used in programs across the world as a way to affect positive social change.

A job is a job is a job.

Except when it comes to baking.

It turns out that teaching individuals to turn water and flour into bread does more than give them a trade. There’s some kind of transformation that happens when we learn to bake bread.

Jane Mason figured this out, and now she trains Bread Angels. Adults who take the three-day course from Mason’s company, Virtuous Bread, get their wings. They learn to bake bread and set up their own micro-business.

Along the way, these entrepreneurs secure more than a chance at a job.

“Bread does seem to be something really transformational,” says Mason, who started her business in the United Kingdom in 2010 and has trained about 160 Bread Angels. Many of the Angels run their own bakeries now, and they have trained more than 1,000 adults to bake bread.

“Baking bread is meditative. Then what happens when you bake bread and sell it to someone or give it to someone, you have an affirming experience. I know this sounds new-age, but it’s different than putting up shelves.”

We can learn something from Mason’s own kind of bread epiphany.

After earning an MBA from London Business School, Mason took a high-finance job in London.

During the 2008 recession, when Mason says “greed and envy gave way to fear and anger.” She became obsessed with the notion of virtue. She talked about it to anyone would listen.

“Then I woke up one day and figured out bread can effect positive social change,” Mason said in telephone call from Mexico. “If you teach people a life skill and enable them to share that, and then they get extraordinary positive affirmation, and then you help them with the business skills so they can earn a living, that’s got to be it. So I did it.”

There are similar examples of baking power here in the States.

LA’s Homeboy Industries trains former gang members to run a bakery. Homeboy sells baked treats at Homegirl Café and through the mail.

In the Bronx, Greyston Bakery makes brownies to create jobs.

The brownies, good enough for Whole Foods and Ben & Jerry’s, are baked by adults other firms generally won’t hire. In a world where elite and exclusive are prized, Greyston hires anyone.

Linton Hopkins, a James Beard Award winning chef, sees similar results in the craft bakery he operates.

“Bread is magical,” says Hopkins, founder of H&F Bakery, a zero-additive bakery that cooked up 1.7 million pounds of dough last year.

Baking fresh bread is special, in part, because demand is high and skilled talent is scarce. For individuals who may have been stuck on assembly lines in other food-service jobs, Hopkins gives them a career path as artisans. Workers can grasp the status of culinary school grads.

“This is about food with a purpose,” Hopkins says. “A healthy, profitable food system is part of building up the community.”

In the UK, Francesca Barker found purpose in bread. The court system steered her to Virtuous Bread after she received probation for a fraud conviction.

“Baking has changed my life,” Barker says. “I've gone from private school education, to a severe cocaine addiction which resulted in a rather destructive episode which ended with a criminal conviction and in a very backwards way, it has been the road that lead me to find my real passion – baking.”

Baking is more than a new job. It’s a new life.

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