Sarah Stevens doesn’t get tired of baking bread.
"Baking bread is the one thing I could do every day for the rest of my life," says Stevens, co-founder of Bread for the People, a sourdough bread-based social enterprise that has raised more than $10,000 for COVID-19 relief in the past four months.
"It’s the most magical thing. With these simple ingredients, I can make a special loaf that really surprises people when they get it," she says.
Stevens started the fundraising effort with her wife, Libbey Goldberg, whom she first met when they both worked at Liberty Pie, Lou Lambert’s now-closed South Congress bakery and pizzeria, in the late 1990s.
That’s when Stevens got paid to bake all day. Goldberg also worked in the kitchen, making pizzas and other cafe items. At the time, they were friends and coworkers, surrounded all day, every day, by flour, living in a city with a burgeoning food scene.
Now it’s 2020, and Austin’s now-booming food scene is struggling to survive the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Food professionals are looking for ways to keep their businesses alive, and others are finding ways to give back to the community through food.
After Goldberg spent 12 years in California, where she started a personal chef business, Salt of the Earth Foods, she returned to Austin in 2012 and reconnected with Stevens. They got married and are now raising two kids, ages 9 and 4.
Before the pandemic, they were working together on the personal chef business and making plans to open a small grocery market, but once the lockdown started, they saw flour sales skyrocket and friends sharing baking tutorials online.
They also saw their fellow Austinites losing jobs and their sense of security. Rather than feeling helpless, they turned to what they knew best: sourdough.
Stevens says she’d always toyed around with the idea of a bread delivery service, but it wasn’t until the quarantine that she felt compelled to start it. "It wasn’t that big of an idea, but I thought I’d reach out to friends and family to see their response," she says.
From the beginning, they vowed for 100 percent of proceeds to go directly to organizations that were making a difference in Austin. That meant they’d have to pay for the flour and donate their time, with Stevens in charge of the dough and Goldberg coordinating the orders and deliveries.
The first week, Stevens made about 20 loaves, with a suggested donation of $10 per loaf. Word quickly spread, and a few weeks later, she was making 50 loaves of bread a week.
Before the pandemic, Stevens and daughter Lila would host fundraiser bake sales on a weekend. "If we raised $150, we were super psyched," Stevens says. With the sourdough loaves, they could raise $500 in a week. "The persistence of showing up every week. It’s really something to watch that grow."
She can bake four loaves at a time in the family’s large home oven, and she often bakes the first loaves before breakfast and starts the next day’s batch after the kids go to bed. She bakes six days a week, between six and 12 loaves a day.
"We are already in the habit of baking bread every day," Stevens says. "We work it into our other work."
Abby Love of Abby Jane Bakeshop loaned them some cast-iron pans and bread baskets, and Alex Manley of Swedish Hill Bakery is helping them buy wholesale flour by the 50-pound bag. Barton Springs Mill has donated about 300 pounds of flour to make the loaves and feed the sourdough starter.
Because COVID-19 disproportionately affects communities already struggling with poverty and systemic racism, Goldberg says their commitment to supporting organizations that support Black and indigenous people and other people of color has only grown.
Each week, they split up the donations between several organizations, recently Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm (a Black-owned urban farm in East Austin), the Transgender Law Center and the Reunite Families Hutto Community Deportation Defense & Bond Fund.
"This project isn’t really about us and what we are doing. (Baking bread) is what way we have found to support communities of color through repeat donations," Stevens says. "That’s the big lens that we bring to it."
So far, they’ve raised $10,000, which has gone to more than two dozen organizations, from No Kid Hungry, Austin Diaper Bank and Meals on Wheels to El Buen Samaritano, Color of Change, Austin Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise and social and civil rights inequities becoming more visible on the national stage, Stevens and Goldberg say their project has no end in sight.
"Our community, in Texas in particular, is still very much in crisis," Goldberg says. "We are committed to doing this."
Both Goldberg and Stevens say Bread for the People wouldn’t exist without a network of volunteers who regularly deliver bread to customers all over Austin. "I’m good at baking bread," Stevens says. "The thing we find challenging is the organizational pieces, connecting the volunteers to help with delivery. We couldn’t do this without those little pieces of help."
Lori Levy, who lives next door to Stevens and Goldberg and runs a pilates studio, says Bread for the People has also given her a way to support causes she cares about, even though her financial situation took a hit because of the pandemic.
"My small business is hurting," she says. "I wish I could give more, but I know there are a lot of less fortunate people, and (delivering bread) is something I can do to give back."
Two or three days a week, she and her daughter, Dylan, who just got her driver’s license, will deliver bread all over the city.
"It gives me something to do, and it gets me out of that house," she says. "But it also gives me some quality time with them. When my daughter has her hands on the wheel, she’s not on TikTok, she’s not on YouTube. She knows we're doing something good."
With less traffic on Austin road, Levy says it’s been a great way for Dylan to get more comfortable behind the wheel. Sometimes, her 14-year-old son, Dash, will join, and they’ll take turns running the bread up to the door.
Goldberg and Stevens’ daughter, Lila, also has been helping them by making deliveries to customers in the neighborhood, someones on foot, someones on her bike. "It's been a great way for her to be involved in taking positive, tangible action during the pandemic and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement," Stevens says. (She also recently started making duct tape wallets to sell to raise money for charities.)
Some customers buy bread as gifts for their friends and neighbors. "It's been a really wonderful aspect of this whole thing," Goldberg says. "People sending this humble handcrafted, nourishing piece of love to say, ‘I'm thinking about you during this time apart,’" she says.
Stevens says that moment of surprise when someone opens the door was an unexpected gift to the bakers, too. "We get to see this little moment of surprise and joy when the recipient gets their loaf. When things felt so new and dark in the world in the beginning, that felt really moving," she says.
The couple say they are still hoping to open that neighborhood market with prepared foods, beer, wine and, yes, freshly baked bread. After this experience with Bread for the People, they are even more committed to incorporating a financial giveback model into whatever business they develop in the coming years.
People who want to support their effort and help pay for supplies can donate directly through Venmo (@libbey-goldberg), and if you want to sign up for a loaf, send an email to email@example.com to get on the mailing list. You can also find them at @bread4thepeople on Instagram and Facebook.
More than 20 years after they met in that flour-covered kitchen on South Congress, Goldberg and Stevens are again surrounded by flour, all day, every day, raising money for causes they care about and teaching their kids how to use what they love to make a difference in their community.
Bread is a magical thing, indeed.