The social cost of a loaf …

In August 2012 VB was invited to speak at the Greenbelt Festival on the topic of where faith, art, and justice collide.  After some thought it became clear that they collide more often than not where craft and industry meet.  It takes enormous faith be a craftsperson – faith in oneself in the face of a world where people seem to prefer standardised, cheap products rather than relatively more expensive things made by hand with love.  Further, there is little justice in a world where a talented craftsperson cannot make a decent living and where the full emotional and societal costs of standardised cheap goods are hidden by many manufacturers and ignored by most consumers.  Below is the speech, given with passion and commitment at Greenbelt.  If you don’t want to read it, you can watch the video here:

Faith, Art, and Justice collide in the battle between factory made and craft made food

Good morning and how are you today?  Firstly I would like to thank the organisers of Greenbelt for inviting me to speak with you.  It is a great honour and I am thrilled to be here.  As you know, all of us who have been invited to deliver a short talk were asked to speak on the topic of where faith, art, and justice collide and I confess at first I really struggled to understand how to convey thoughts about this in any kind of coherent manner.  But, over time and by observing people with whom I come into contact through bread I began to realise that faith, art, and justice collide in the food industry –  specifically in the battle between factory made and craft made food.

Hand made pains au chocolat – each is unique

Some of you may be foodies and some of you may not and that is ok – the reality is that most of you are probably a bit of both – with high expenditure on lovely hand-made things from time to time whilst trying to stretch your weekly budget further and further in the supermarket given the price of food has gone up – and will continue to do so.  It is not for me to speak about what people should spend their money on and I would never presume to judge and individual’s choices.  But what I would like to speak about what it is like to be a craft baker in a world dominated by global industrial brands that produce and sell cheap bread.  At the same time, I would like to address some of the impacts that the industrial bakers have on us and, more broadly, on our society and the world at large.  Bread, believe it or not, is a place where faith, art, and justice collide.

My name is Jane Mason and I founded Virtuous Bread to make it fun and easy for people to make and find and learn about good bread and in so doing to forge the link between bread and virtue.  I founded the company after I woke up one day and realised that I could change the world through bread.  This realisation was based on the observation, having lived around the world, of the universality of bread.  It’s everywhere and, when properly made, confirms both our individuality and our humanity.  We respond to bread for reasons that we don’t even understand.  I can confirm this categorically.  Every day, when I sell or give away bread I get a 100% positive response rate.  100% positive.  That’s a pretty good rate.  It makes me feel great, it makes me feel connected and it made me realise that other people would feel great too if they could learn to bake and share bread.

Bread brings people together

I bake professionally and I run a baking school.  I also work with senior executives, the elderly, prisoners and school children – baking bread with them to teach them new skills, to build confidence and self-esteem, and to foster a sense of connectedness with the ground.  Bread, you see, is made of four things which, taken in isolation we cannot eat.  Flour, water, salt and yeast on their own will not sustain us in a way that the ingredients, say, of a stew, will sustain us.  We transform the ingredients in bread so that they become something on which we can live.  Bread is the life-giving and life saving example of connectedness.  In addition, Virtuous Bread has a programme called Bread Angels that is dedicated to teaching people how to set up their own home baking businesses. The idea here is that the Bread Angels work at home, when they want, and deliver good quality, hand-made bread to their local communities.  The result is that they can earn money whilst transforming the health and lives of their local community by making good bread available and they can increase their own sense of connectedness too.

The very latest Bread Angels

The sad truth is that good bread is not available in most parts of the UK.

Good bread, you see, is the end product of a good process that includes responsible farming, stone milling, an element of hand baking, and local delivery with minimal packaging.  At every step along that process, there are people who care about the impact their activities are having on their local communities and the world at large.  They are the small farmers who work their land with love and the craft millers and bakers who believe that what they create is so much more than a product.  Craftspeople employ specific manual skills to produce goods that are both beautiful and functional.  Like artists, what we produce is an extension of ourselves – our belief systems, our world view, our faith, our skills and talents, and specifically in the case of bread – our actual bodies.  No other food product is handled as much as much as hand-made bread.

It takes faith to be a craftsperson, let me tell you.  I have to have faith that I can produce a beautiful loaf that starts conversations, elicits a positive response, and is something that people want to purchase, consume, and learn how to do.  I have been amazed and blessed that there are plenty of people out there who share my faith.  I do not bake and teach full-time simply because I currently run Virtuous Bread which, at the end of the day, is a small start-up that does more than just bake. When I get to the stage that I want to retire and bake full-time, the sad truth is that I better have won the lottery because I know I will find it almost impossible to earn a living wage in the UK baking and selling my bread even though more and more people are willing to spend a little bit more to get a better loaf.  Rents are simply too high.  Bakeries earn much more money on coffee, cake, and sandwiches than they do on bread even if they are selling great quality, expensive bread.

This is where the injustice comes in:  The reality is that most bakeries in the UK that make profits are high-end chains that can afford the rent, that bake centrally and sometimes even from frozen because the economics of central production outweigh the economics of local production.  Further, they are not bakeries – they are cafes – perfectly fine except that I don’t want to run a cafe – and they make their money on meals, rather than on bread.  High quality, independent bakeries that can exist by selling bread alone are virtually extinct in this country.

A Bakery – in Stockholm – surviving very nearly on bread alone

This means, as I have alluded to above, that good bread is simply not available in most parts of the country.  Bread-like substance is available, sure, but the vast majority of what is on the supermarket shelf is an industrial product, full of additives, made with intensively farmed, industrially milled wheat that has been completely denatured and stripped of its natural nutrients.  The bread is made on a conveyor belt –  that is one of the reasons why it is square – and it is most definitely a product that has never had a human hand laid on it.  For many and various reasons that are too complicated to go into now, this product, made rapidly with a list of ingredients that you can barely pronounce, is making people ill.  It’s making ducks ill!  When good bread and clean water can actually sustain you, it is utterly unjust that this industrially made product is even called bread.

To add insult to injury, it is often marketed in the “basics” range – where “basic” is a euphemism for “cheap” when surely, the limited range of food stuffs in the “basics” range – which probably makes up about 80 % of some people’s diets – should be the best possible quality, and not the cheapest.  Should be the most wholesome, as opposed to near junk that is detrimental to the health of individuals, their communities, the environment, and the world at large.

Most people in this country trust the packaged food industry.  Scares about mad cow, foot and mouth and salmonella have fuelled the trust in the hermetically sealed packages that march uniformly across the supermarket shelf.  If you ask the average person they will tell you that the supermarkets would never sell anything that would harm them.  Some may even say that the supermarkets only sell things that are good for them.  Whilst this is patently untrue – and most people would also concede on a good day that sugary cereals, drinks and snacks are not good for them – people have a right to think that the bread that is on sale is a healthy product and in many many cases it simply is not.

The people who run industrial bakeries and large supermarkets are not bad people.  They are business people and if we knocked on their door and demanded a better product for which we were prepared to pay, they would make it for us.  The reverse is also true.  If we stopped buying their products they would have to respond with something better.  So, the next time you go down the bread aisle:  think.  Well, take a deep sniff and then think.  If that does not convince you, pick up a bag and sniff it.  Then read the label and decide if you really want to eat what’s in the bag.

Further, the next time you catch yourself thinking that 3.50 is a bit too expensive for a hand-made loaf:  think. Think what went into it.  Think about the ingredients and the process.  Ask the baker about it because he or she will be the one selling it.  And consider that one large coffee from Starbucks is almost as expensive as the loaf that will feed your family for a few days.

Justice is something that is both given and received. If you want to receive justice, don’t buy products – any products – on blind trust because you may find that you have been cheated in more ways than you can possibly imagine.  If you want to hand out justice, spend a little bit more to support craftspeople who daily pour their faith, hope, and love into their work.

Thank you very much.

Originally posted in September 2012.

2 thoughts on “The social cost of a loaf …”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top