Local Bakers Feed a Hunger to Serve Their Community
Making cookies and sandwiches is critical to community health
By Jessi Cape and Lilli Hime, Fri., May 21, 2021
Record numbers of people across the world turned to baking, for many reasons, during the pandemic – passing the quarantine time, saving money, and relying on the therapeutic benefits of kneading dough. For many, including Austinites like Syed Ali Haider and local groups like Neighborhood Baking Collective and Recycled Love, baking has become part of something much bigger.
It’s Not That Hard to Make PB&J
A group of neighbors in East Austin has been offering camp support for the Tillery and Zaragoza camps of unhoused people living in tents and cars since January 2020 or so. Organized under the name Recycled Love, their focus is primarily providing meals, almost always seven days a week, for around 50 people – that's roughly 8,000 meals, not to mention other supplies like bug spray and hygiene products. Whether it's coordinating with other groups like Red Beans and Ricely Yours and restaurant chefs from Cook's Nook, or churning out the food themselves, Recycled Love is diligently providing nourishment to our Austin neighbors, every day.
"We have a little pantry that we cook from when no one else can make meals that day," explains co-founder Colleen Tabolt. "Peanut butter and jelly is a big one. We piece it together."
The whole thing started simply because Tabolt, Jessica Jarrett, and Eugenia Harris realized they were all doing similar service acts — like making sandwiches in bulk – and they joined forces with others, who, because of the pandemic, suddenly had more time on their hands. The demands for what folks need varies depending on the season, and the support varies week to week based on their network's availability. Lately, the need for help is growing as more and more people find themselves at the camps, but with others re-entering the workforce and a post-pandemic existence beginning to surface, the bountiful-in-2020 supply of volunteers is dwindling.
When asked what Tabolt would tell would-be volunteers, or anyone really, she said, "The best thing that would come out of anything like this [article], in my opinion, is to inspire someone to make 20 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and take them to a camp once a week. It's not that hard just to help folks in our community. It's really not. Making 20 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches takes like 30 minutes. It sucks to be living on the streets and be hungry, and it's hot and they don't have anywhere to shower. If I could do anything, it would be to inspire other folks to help."
Tabolt explains that the mission is personal, after she experienced being unhoused years ago, it's really just about putting something positive into a world swirling with negatives. She says, "There weren't a lot of people out there that were nice. Especially not helpful, but nice even. And that was very challenging of course, for anyone. So now as an adult and as someone who does have resources and can coordinate with other folks that have resources, I just really like to give back to the community that saved my life back then. And now it's just an act of service. I think it's really really important in folks' lives especially when there is so much negative in the world, giving back just a little bit to those that have it harder. It can give you a lot of perspective in your own life and bring a lot of joy to your own life as well."
That sharing a meal is a basic human need is not lost on the folks at Recycled Love, or the camps. Tabolt says, "I know everybody – well not everybody, of course there's new faces and things but – we know each other by name and see each other at least a couple times a week. I know when they're struggling with specific things, and they're people just like me. Like literally. I think that if a lot of people would take that step outside their comfort zone and maybe just smile at someone who has it harder than them, they'd realize that we all have the same struggles – it's usually just economic in most cases. People tend to lose empathy when they think that someone is so far below them, but in this world sometimes we're all just a few very bad unlucky days away from the potential of being unhoused."
Ensuring that the community they're serving is centered is critical. And while monetary donations and wish list items fulfillment definitely helps, reaching out to groups on the ground to ask how to help is really what Recycled Love hopes more people would do. "Austin Mutual Aid has a huge network and it's connected to all us little groups. Just reach out to [your] local group and have someone go with [you] the first time so [you] feel more comfortable. [You'd] see that it's not scary at all. These are just normal people that are very, very kind. Kinder than the folks that I run into when I go to Whole Foods."
Tabolt adds, "I'm not a religious person at all, but we have all these old foundations of religion – like 'be kind to your neighbor,' the golden rule, 'do unto others ...' – and it even comes up in modern media, like Bill and Ted's 'Be Excellent Together' [campaign]. It is so easy to just lose track of that foundational tenet of being kind to the folks around you, regardless of their income or any of the pieces around it."– Jessi Cape
Check availability through their Instagram page @recycledlove.
No Gesture Is Too Small
Melinda Barsales founded Neighborhood Baking Collective during the chaos, and the seemingly ubiquitous home baking, of July 2020. "It seemed like everyone I knew was baking and everyone had their own little thing they were doing. Sourdough was a big thing," she says.
Barsales, who has a background in baking at Enoteca Vespaio, had been making a recipe for galettes she'd received from her Library Foundation pen pal, and as she was churning out dozens, Barsales tried to find a place to accept homebaked donations. Turns out, that's not so easy, so she turned to her network – which includes both home cooks and industry friends from local restaurants like Jeffrey's and Elizabeth Street Cafe. As it happened, she had also been laid off from her job during the pandemic and needed a means to supplement her own income. The original idea of Neighborhood Baking Collective was born.
"It happened very organically. If you're going to be involved in the capitalist structure, how do you offset that through mutual aid – that was the question I asked myself," she says. "It was simple: We do one bake sale a week, and once a week we bake for mutual aid. In my mind, it was not any big deal. I thought what can I sustain in terms of baking? It's easy: once a week. Now the count is up because there are more people unhoused than there were last year."
The small collective of bakers make items including delights like oatmeal cookies, linzer tortes, brown butter apple blondies with maple vanilla bean glaze, and plenty of Barsales' galettes. Making sure things work within Texas' rigid cottage baking laws is difficult, but much of the decision-making process also involves considering things like shelf stable food, and soft items due to widespread compromised dental issues. Some weeks, she says, they're just baking and figuring it out: "We'll just bake it, and if it ends up being 65 cake bars at the Free Fridge, so be it, but it's somewhere where people have access to a little sweet treat.
"We want to keep the energy around this one of enjoyment and service. If it starts to feel more burdensome, then you adjust." As the pandemic world continues to shift, needs and availability changes, and Barsales and her group of bakers have slowed the bake sales but kept up the community baking. The Collective still hosts a pop-up on Sunday morning at Micklethwait Craft Meats, but Barsales remains focused on offering what they can to those who need it. "The plan is to keep going and just see. That's a big COVID lesson – it's hard to be attached to expectation. Go with the flow, decide what you can do, and keep doing that. Adjust accordingly. Know and feel empowered that you CAN do something. And not to mention it's really fun."
Non-bakers can do something, too. Keep small cash on hand, or frozen water bottles in the summer, and share, she offers. "When you're stopped at a stop sign, and you get that uncomfortable feeling like, 'Oh no, a panhandler,' just give 'em five bucks! Or, bug spray is expensive, so if it's literally just one bottle you can spare, give it to somebody. Or those wristband things. No gesture is too small."
Barsales has returned to work, but baking for others remains part of her routine. "There is something therapeutic about baking for me. It's a means of exercising creativity but then there's that energetic connection that you forge when you just think about what's going on in this city, and you think about the people who are going to be receiving these brownies or whatever as you are baking it. I feel like it imbues what you're baking with this sense of 'I see you, I care about you, you know, you are seen.'"
"That's the whole thinking of mutual aid: Yeah, you might be giving something to someone in need, but what you're getting out of it is reconnecting to your humanity. I don't believe in a return to normalcy but it's important to return to the mutual aid aspect." – J.C.
Check availability through their Instagram page @neighborhoodbakingcollective.
He Wants to Bake Bread for Every Person in Austin
Who could forget the breadmaking phase of quarantine circa March 2020 when many Austinites found themselves stuck at home, pounding their COVID anxieties into loaves of dough? Over a year later, Syed Ali Haider is still making bread, and that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon. Not with his goal. "I won't stop until I bake for every person in Austin."
Inspired by the late artist Jason Polan's goal of drawing every person in New York, Haider seeks to emulate this in Austin. He believes the purpose of such a grand goal is in the unattainability itself, as that keeps the artist, or in his case, the baker, constantly striving.
Haider compares his goal to the myth of Sisyphus. If you cringe a little at the mention of the Greek legend sentenced to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, Haider endows the old legend with new insight and nobility. "Actually, the only way to focus on my life is really enjoying the labor, enjoying the process, enjoying the rolling of the boulder up the hill and not thinking of the end result of getting it to the top. Just being present in the moment and finding joy in some ways around that work."
Presence is the secret ingredient to both Haider's love of baking and his artisan loaves. When he first was learning to make bread a few months before the pandemic hit, he discovered the process to be incredibly therapeutic as it demanded him to be mindful throughout the day. As someone who's had depression and suicidal ideation, Haider found it to be a great tool for managing his mental health and sobriety.
"Baking allows me to ground myself, to be meditative, to slow down. I can get wrapped up in my emotions and the trauma of the world. I can start to spiral out of control, but baking bread brings me back from the brink and really slows me down and helps me work with my hands in service of other people."
In addition to its meditative process, bread also intrigued Haider for the scientific puzzle it offered, which replaced his former interest in the craft of bourbon. Specifically interesting was the finickiness of sourdough. A starter, the notorious yeast and bacteria-laden humble beginnings of a good sourdough, picks up the bacteria in the air, on the baker's hands, in the water, and in the neighborhood to create a unique flavor profile. So, the beauty of sourdough, Haider believes, is that this bread quite literally tastes of home. And sharing his bread opens his home to others.
When the pandemic first hit, sharing his bit of home with others became a priority. Already equipped with this self care regimen, Haider wanted to help others, especially in the wake of the crippling effects of COVID. He started by baking his first three loaves for the ATX Free Fridge Project, with many more to come. He then reached out to Twitter, offering loaves-on-request for anyone in Austin, especially for those facing food insecurity. In that first year of the pandemic, between his Twitter requests and the ATX Free Fridge Project, Haider baked 100 loaves for people.
This year, he hopes to double that with a goal of 200 loaves by December. And with Austin's population of nearly 1 million and ever growing, Haider may be more similar to Sisyphus than he realizes. And that's fine by him.– Lilli Hime