Founder Michelle Stratford explains how the business creates safe spaces, brings people closer together around bread making to talk about difficult things, builds togetherness and trust, while exploring health and wellbeing.
I founded Planet Leicester Bakers in 2014 with the aim of blatantly exploiting the loveliness of bread for positive social benefit and a mantra of: ‘Good Bread, Doing Good.’
After 25 years working in charities and the local community, I wanted to take a skill I already possessed, develop it and utilise it for the benefit of the people I had grown to love in my adopted home of Leicester. As a fourth-generation home baker and with the growing popularity of The Great British Bake Off, bread making seemed an obvious choice. Bread is a universal and much-loved food that has an incredibly powerful ability to bring a smile to people’s faces.
Visiting bread businesses around the country, from Birmingham to Liverpool, it was clear that running a high street bakery was not what I wanted to do, and not what would necessarily work in Leicester. Instead I sought training and support from the Bread Angels network of microbakers. I also used my existing networks to tap into diverse communities of common interest through project partnership working. This has been crucial to enabling access to groups of people and neighbourhoods that would otherwise be out of reach. It’s a way of working that is, without doubt, intensive. It demands time and patience to build trust, as well as gaining understanding of how other organisations work, as each is unique.
There is no doubt that the reward is substantial. The incredible range of people getting their hands sticky in bread dough through our partnership projects speaks for itself. Previous experience of working in neighbourhoods had shown that kitchen space is available but often is underused. From churches to village halls and community centres, possibilities were endless for delivering bread making activities in the heart of communities, making them accessible and more attractive.
So, what has Planet Leicester Bakers actually achieved? Over 1000 people have engaged in some way with the business: through training, community projects, public speaking events and more. The business has delivered four substantial community projects and what we learned from Sharing Bread, the first project in 2015, continues to inform new project design. Over the course of one year Sharing Bread trained over 60 people in their communities to bake basic bread. The project also had a reward system to encourage people to continue baking beyond community sessions, creating Silver and then Gold Star Planet Leicester Bakers. The challenge of ensuring continued bread making is one Planet Leicester Bakers, and its’ project partners, are always looking to address.
The potential for utilising the space created by proving and baking in the bread making process, is something Planet Leicester Bakers actively promoted in 2017 and the following year first trialled through the Leicester Bread Clubs project. Designed and promoted in partnership with the local NHS Trust, this project used bread making to bring people together to share experience of mental health struggles and find peer support. With Time to Change Leicester funding, Leicester Bread Clubs went some way towards embedding bread making as a therapeutic activity in local NHS mental health communities.
Thanks to the work and commitment of the 13 NHS volunteers we trained, and the NHS staff involved, it continues to thrive under the name Knead to Chat [see True Loaf issue 42]. Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust paid for the purchase of bread kits (containing basic equipment such as dough scrapers, aprons and digital scales) for the NHS team to keep and use after the funded project and we offered mentored sessions for the volunteers to have a go at baking and working with 20 people. Both of these decisions increased the possibility of bread making being used into the future. The partnership aspect of the project also ensured a support structure for taking the initiative forward beyond the funded period.
The most substantial partnership project to date is Baking a Difference. In 2017, Planet Leicester Bakers approached local charity Learning for the Fourth Age (L4A) to design, develop and deliver a program of bread-related activity sessions in older people’s residential settings. L4A has extensive experience and relationships with local care homes and secured National Lottery funding for an initial pilot project.
During 12 sessions in care homes and a sheltered housing setting, the pilot project demonstrated the concept’s potential benefits. We broke down the bread making process into bite-sized sessions, with activities ranging from experiments to explain the science of bread to working and shaping dough. Each action, no matter how small, provided therapeutic benefit for older people living with a whole range of challenges from dementia to the impact of a stroke. This pilot led to more substantial National Lottery funding, allowing us to engage over a year with more than 150 older people in 66 interactive Baking a Difference sessions.
We also trained 30 care home staff and volunteers in bread making and delivering the project’s activities. Not only that, the project also commissioned a professionally produced series of 19 videos showing other people how to deliver the activities. These are freely accessible worldwide via the Planet Leicester Bakers’ YouTube channel and have already been used by some of my fellow Bread Angels who have been approached to work with elders’ groups. We are hopeful that the videos will inspire more and more community and home bakers to use the activities with support and social groups local to them, as well as within their own families.
In 2019, Sharing Bread+, a collaboration with charity consortium Reaching People, aimed to bring communities together to start grassroots discussions about difference and challenges people faced in our increasingly fractured world. We trained community staff and volunteers to facilitate bread making sessions and in managing conversations. We also ran follow-on mentored sessions for the newly trained facilitators, guiding them through managing bread making sessions with members of their community. This aimed to build the confidence of bread facilitators and we also supplied them with bread kits.
Local charities working on issues ranging from homelessness (The Centre Project) to women’s empowerment (Outspoken) fell in love with the bread making sessions and the safe spaces they created. Faheema Moosa of Raedan Institute was as bowled over as any, saying “Thanks for sharing your amazing techniques and knowledge with us! The bread was yum!” This immense positivity that the bread brought to groups made the discussions in between working the dough easier and more productive.
Planet Leicester Bakers has built a strong local reputation for quality, innovative community work. The focus has been on developing strategies together with communities that will hopefully work for them. It has other strands of work; from the microbakery that now delivers Real Bread using my Bread Bike to a city centre retail square every other week, to home-baker training and public speaking. But it is the community work, designed and delivered in partnership with local people, which really drives the business. It enables so many conversations to start and opens people’s eyes and minds to the simplicity, complexity and wellbeing potential of the globally much-loved, but often undervalued, food stuff: Real Bread.
You can find out more about Planet Leicester Bakers, their services and how to buy their Real Bread at: www.planetleicesterbakers.co.uk