Bread Clubs Are Still Going Strong During Quarantine

They’re building community and helping members become better bakers

Photo: Chicago Bread Club via Instagram

Megan Goldenberg founded the Huron Valley Bread Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last February — and, as it turns out, founding a bread club was right on-trend. Even before the pandemic, there had been a resurgence in bread baking at home, and with the spike in bread baking during the quarantine, the appeal of these clubs is on the rise.

True, members can’t meet in person at the moment. But even so, as the case is for the Ann Arbor club, the over 200 members are reaping the benefits and interacting in creative ways. They’re buying copious amounts of local flour, posting pictures of their baking on social media, and assembling care packages for workers from the mill where they buy flour — since millers have been working around the clock. Goldenberg even sourced einkorn berries for a member’s elderly parents who grind their own flour. She received a heartfelt note from their daughter about how much it meant for them to be able to keep to their routine.

When the club did hold in-person gatherings, they were casual: Topics were guided by members’ requests, including a talk on how the Huron River shaped the area’s milling industry. Goldenberg said that when The New Bread Basket author Amy Halloran met with the group, “the camaraderie, the community, the dialogue was just so engaging. I walked away from it thinking, ‘Oh, this was the perfect thing.’”

“People ask what a bread club is,” said Goldenberg. “It’s whatever you want it to be. It’s fluid, so it’s been really exciting.”

Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

A bread club is about more than swapping loaves: It can help develop the local grain economy by spotlighting heritage grains, foster community, and guide members toward becoming better bakers.

Goldenberg doesn’t even bake bread. She owns a grain-processing business and is a local grain sales rep and the mom of two young kids with a third on the way. She consulted Chicago Bread Club founder and co-director Shulamis Rouzaud before founding the club in response to clamoring from her network of bakers, brewers, distillers, and chefs to connect with others who shared their interests. With little publicity, even interested non-bakers traveled up to two hours to attend meetings (before the quarantine).

Attend a meeting and you’d find members of varying genders, ages, and backgrounds, passionate about baking bread and eating healthfully and sustainably. At the Chicago Bread Club’s free monthly meetings, members could get sourdough starter or grains for free; grind grains in the community Mockmill or use them for seed; and leaf through a reference library and a list of local grain farmers. All clubs are generally BYOB (in this case, bread), and members can taste what others have baked.

Founded in July 2018, the Chicago Bread Club initially focused on supporting organic and organic-adjacent agriculture in the Chicago area. At a meeting last fall, Hewn Bread co-owner Ellen King shared how she researched and persuaded farmers to grow local grains to supply her now-successful bakery. When she passed around a tray of 20 paper cups filled with grains and freshly milled flours — including Sungold spelt, rye, and White Sonora wheat — there were audible murmurs of interest and surprise from the nearly 30 attendees, millennials through middle age, as they smelled, touched, and examined them.

This year, the organization sharpened its focus on promoting and expanding the racial equity of the regional grain economy. While developing the club, Rouzaud realized that the farmers, millers, and others she met were all white. Rouzaud was passionate about forming a club that is not exclusionary in any way or that supports “essentially only white folks, white entities, or white-led entities,” as she put it. To aid local Black and brown farmers, she and co-director Fresh Roberson developed a thoughtful and powerful advocacy statement for the nonprofit. It includes their vision of a regional grain economy and a mission for the club to support that vision “as a platform for representation, resource-sharing, and community activation,” Rouzad said. “Everything we do is through an anti-racist lens.”

Rouzaud was passionate about forming a club that is not exclusionary in any way or that supports ‘essentially only white folks, white entities, or white blood entities,’ as she put it.

Across the country in Washington State, Katherine Kehrli, the associate dean of the Seattle Culinary Institute, formed the Northwest Bread Bakers Meetup in Seattle, because she noticed “a lot of interest around creating really beautiful breads, using and sharing resources and grains from local farmers, and sharing best tips and practices.”

The group is deeply influenced by The Bread Lab at Washington State University in Mount Vernon, where Stephen Jones is helping bring back specialty grains after decades of homogenizing them has muted their flavors, characteristics (like protein levels and color), and nutritional value.

Before the quarantine, Northwest Bread Bakers Meetup met monthly with up to 40 attendees. Meetups have included attending the Cascadia Grains Conference and a holiday cookie exchange that required the use of whole-grain flour. Kehrli said the group can be about helping people learn how to bake bread or just educating them to be better consumers.

While the group can’t meet right now, last week it began its own philanthropic baking project in response to increased demand on food banks because of the pandemic. Called Neighbor to Neighbor, the club is baking loaves made of local flour that they’re donating to area food banks. It’s a work in progress says Kehrli, who envisions this as an ongoing effort.

That’s precisely the point about bread clubs — they fulfill a variety of purposes. Members make new connections and build communities. They develop a better understanding of their culture and local agriculture.

There’s also the most personal benefit of all: “You start baking with the grains,” said Toya Garcia of the Chicago Bread Club, “and realize your bread tastes way better than anything else you’re getting.”

Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who focuses on culinary history, anthropology, foodways, and the intersection of food and culture.

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