On a recent Monday morning, three bakers start a week's worth of breadmaking in a home kitchen off Arnette Avenue in Durham.
Tim Stallmann, a co-founder of Bread Uprising, his hands heavily dusted with flour, ushers in a neighbor carrying a box of fresh-picked pears from her backyard. A mesh screen hangs over a back doorway to keep out flies.
Javiera Caballero, the newest member of the baking trio, scoots a small stepstool to a kitchen counter. Standing at 5 feet tall, she plants her left foot on the stool and hoists the right half of her body onto the counter surface, stabilizing herself with one knee. The mother of three digs her fists into a large bowl equipped with enough dough for a dozen loves of multigrain artisan bread, kneading it with all her strength.
"The sponge was ready yesterday," Caballero says of the mother dough. "The first time I saw it, it was like the whole 'Feed Me, Seymour' thing!"
Lest you mistake it for a little shop of horrors, Bread Uprising, an underground community-supported bakery, embodies a DIY spirit in the midst of a foodie world bloated with luxury. The bakery cooperative began in 2010 with two friends, Stallmann and Noah Rubin-Blose, both avid bakers and self-defined radicals living in Durham. They started baking for communities with limited or difficult access to basic provisions, like bread.
Bread Uprising offers loaves of whole wheat and multigrain, artisan rolls including rosemary olive, lightly sweetened cinnamon rolls, fruit- and nut-based muffins and more. Caballero, who works as a part-time teacher, says the loaves freeze well and provide a safe, nutritious food staple for her kids with food sensitivities.
Two years ago, the group politely declined this journalist's request for an interview in order to focus on their mission. At the time, you happened upon them only by accident or by word of mouth. Sometimes you would bump into them in public spaces, like at last year's NAACP Historic Thousands on Jones Street march in Raleigh, where they gave out French baguettes. Otherwise, they stayed under the public radar.
"We saw what was happening with food in Durham. It was a really trendy thing and it was moving really quickly," Stallmann says in retrospect. "And it seemed that there were a lot of people who would read our story as like a gourmet bakery or as a sort of trendy CSA. We wanted to figure out different ways to tell the story that felt a lot more grounded, and also figure out, with the entire bread team and membership, ways and structures that made sure we kept foregrounding people of color and low-income communities that we want to be rooted in."
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census bureau released its 2011 American Community Survey. The report stated that a record-setting 13 percent of Americans—about one in eight families—uses food stamps; even more could qualify. North Carolina ranks first in childhood hunger under the age of 5. According to local food relief agency Farmer Foodshare, the Triangle region is home to 180,000 children without enough food.
Experts and activists say people aren't going hungry because of a lack of food but rather a lack of access to affordable food. Bread Uprising is trying to offer a viable local solution. The 38 families that are bakery members pay any way they are able. Some families pay what they can afford monetarily, while others use their food stamps to buy ingredients that can be used in multiple loaves for their families. Then there is the age-old barter system, in which members help clean, make lunch for the team, deliver, provide childcare or car repair in exchange for weekly bread.
(As the bakery went public, it launched a crowd-funding campaign in which they raised $10,235 to pay for more efficient equipment and a living wage for the three bakers.)
"From the beginning we've always had this sense that the perfect producer-consumer divide is kind of artificial," Stallmann says. "We couldn't be baking if people weren't there to eat the bread. In a very real sense, the members were a part of it."
"We have always had a multiracial, multiclass, multiqueer (as we like to say) membership, and we were concerned by some inquiries that we had received from the 'foodie' scene in Durham, which is very white and class-privileged," says Rubin-Blose. "We were concerned that our community could essentially be gentrified if we expanded without being intentional."
The bakers' interpretation of the baking tradition is couched in the language of community activists. When Rubin-Blose discovered he had to list his product ingredients to comply with health code—the kitchen is certified by the health department—he created a zine of essays and community news to slip into each bread bag. Emblazoned on each tiny, folded leaflet is a logo of a raised fist grasping a wooden spoon.
They host study sessions on food sovereignty as it relates to race, class and gender. While food insecurity refers to hunger and a lack of food, food sovereignty analyzes the societal restrictions that contribute to food access.
Rubin-Blose relies on a 2010 statement by the U.S. Social Forum Food Sovereignty People's Movement Assembly: "Food sovereignty [is] the people's democratic control of the food system, the right of all people to healthy, culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems."
Inspired by this philosophy, the bakers hope to expand to a commercial kitchen space with a retail store, but in an area that needs it. "Downtown seems to be well saturated and served," Stallmann says. Bread Uprising recently debuted at Green Flea Market, which appeals to families for its affordable fruits and vegetables.
Emily Chavez and her partner, Serena Sebring, are among the bakery's earliest members in order to help feed themselves and their two children. Chavez spoke to her high school students about the bakery and one student joined. "His family has issues with access to food, so that was really awesome. It's not like he's in some foodie community. He wasn't going to hear it any other way.
"Bread Uprising is a unique and life-changing model of exchange," Chavez says. "It's almost kind of normal to me now, but I remember going through the process and realizing we think of food as something that is always associated with money—the money we have or don't have. Bread Uprising has created the kind of thing where those things are divorced. We give back to the bakery, but give back to each other really. And people are giving abundantly."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Against the grain."