Originally published in Root + Bone, 2016.
Just around the corner from Kingsland Road, propped beneath the hammering rail lines of Haggerston Station, a small bakery serves handmade sourdough, fresh from the oven. I used to visit my brother at his office on the same street. I would always buy a sandwich – two perfect, aerated pieces of sourdough dripping in hot melted cheese. I used to rush in and out, barely noticing the small sign beside the front door that explains the ethos of the place: “At the Bikery in Hackney, we offer trainee placements to those suffering from mental ill-health who wish to find work.”
In the winter of 2012, the community-based charity The Centre for Better Health began researching social enterprise models in support of mental health issues. They were searching for a scheme that encouraged group work, creativity and focus for individuals in recovery. They chose baking, a simple, satiating craft that has kept human hands at work for millennia. They launched Better Health Bakery, offering 12-week trainee placements for people with a range of different needs. Some join as the first step towards recovery. Some come to socialise and keep busy. Some come to hone their skills. Most arrive via GPs and social workers, but many self-refer. External volunteers are also welcomed, working 1 day a wekk for 3 months alongside a small group of permanent staff, from pastry chefs to support workers. “The volunteers are very diverse.” Andy Williams, a social media volunteer tells us. “You’ll have a chef and a yoga teacher one day, and a journalist another. They’re all just there to support a good idea.” All members become a valuable cog in the machine, present at every step of the baking process from mixing the ingredients, waiting out the fermentation, kneading and shaping the dough, cooking the bread and finally selling it. Loaves, pizzas and pastries are sold to the public from the wood-clad bar at the front of the bakery, with the open kitchen and all of its people and parts bustling in the background.
We visit the bakery one sunny afternoon, the scent of awakening bread filling the room and a thin layer of flour veiling everything. The bakers are gathered around a stainless steel table, their hands busy shaping soft, sticky mounds of dough, which will be baked and sold the next morning. The day’s target is 94 kilos. Elton John’s Benny and the Jets blasts from one corner. Georgia Winnicott, a full time baker at Better Health, throws us a couple of faded aprons and introduces us to the group. There is Pedro, Akeela, Richard, Isobel and Jen. They talk us through the process of shaping, before slapping a couple of cuts of raw dough in front of us. I try my best to imitate Akeela’s expert rolling and scooping, but somehow split mine apart, gluing half of it to my palms. She moves behind me and places her hands over mine, guiding the mixture into a perfect, seamless ball. “It’s a bit like that scene in Ghost…” I say, catching another orb of raw dough as Richard sends it flying in my direction.
Better Health is part of a new wave of business-focused charities in London. “This kind of concept is gaining a lot more traction recently.” Andy says. We chat about Botanic Shed, a community-based gardening project that encourages better mental health through outdoor work, and Bad Boys’ Bakery, which is run by inmates inside Brixton Prison. By setting up small businesses, charities are able to become entirely self-sufficient.
The sourdough at Better Health comes in many guises – olive bread, focaccia, seeded – and is made using traditional processes that create alchemy using just a few simple ingredients. In learning how to bake, the trainees and volunteers at Better Health Bakery learn a valuable life skill. But the point is not to assemble a team of star bakers. “It’s the social support that truly benefits people. Obviously they’re learning skills but hardly anyone’s going to become a baker after they finish.” Says Tabitha Wells, the bakery’s social enterprise manager. “It’s about filling time and getting the trainees in a normal environment with other people, getting them more comfortable with themselves in a workplace.” Andy Williams, the bakery’s social media volunteer, agrees. “It’s about getting into a routine. It has an effect on people.” He tells us. I ask about the physical act of making bread – a process that most people find soothing. It has an ordered, peaceful quality to it. Is this something Better Health considered in the beginning? “The charity definitely tries to downplay the whole ‘kneading dough is therapeutic’ element.” He explains. “It’s more about being around people. It encourages a sense of community on a very small scale – by providing a comforting and supportive environment.”
We meet Niguisse Arressee upstairs, a manufacturer who has been at Better Health for over 30 years. “The charity used to be called the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.” He tells us. “People were kind of shut away and given little tasks. It kept them busy but they weren’t able to really engage with the community. It didn’t encourage them to move along.” The name changed to Better Health a decade ago. “In the old days they just stopped here and stayed here. They could be here for years.” Tabitha says. “Now, people are encouraged to grow and develop outside of these walls.”
Back downstairs, the group work steadily – a smooth conveyer belt of hands. The bread begins to be slid into the oven. Looking around the room, the most striking thing has to be that Better Health Bakery’s focus is not on the personal issues of its members. The sign outside the door is small and secondary. The focus is on great bread, made with great ingredients, in the best possible environment. “We don’t make a distinction between the trainees and the volunteers on the floor.” Tabitha tells us. “It’s not about your past. It’s about being here in the space, right now, working together.”