At a commercial kitchen on Madison’s North Side, workers in hairnets churned out hundreds of oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon rolls and morning buns on a recent Friday morning.
Two days later, the baked goods were sold in the lobbies of area churches after worship services let out.
In each case, the bakers and sellers were ex-convicts, people who face significant hurdles to employment. One of those involved in the program, David Smith, said he’d built a solid work history over nearly 40 years before a criminal conviction and time in the Dane County Jail wiped it all away.
“It was like I had a big blot on my record,” said Smith, 59, of Madison. “No one would hire me.”
The program, called Just Bakery, is a relatively new initiative of Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), an interfaith social justice organization with a long history of helping ex-prisoners re-enter society. By training and employing people with criminal records, the organization is leading by example, said Carmella Glenn, Just Bakery program coordinator.
“For years, we’ve been telling employers, ‘They’ve changed. Give them a chance.’ We wanted to be the proof in the pudding,” she said.
The bakery effort, begun in 2013, provides 16 weeks of classroom and kitchen training. Participants get instruction and assistance in becoming certified through ServSafe, a food safety training program of the National Restaurant Association.
Graduates of the program also become eligible to take an exam specially designed for Just Bakery by the Wisconsin Bakers Association. Those who pass get additional certification.
“To any employer, these credentials mean something,” said Phillip Thomas, 51, of Madison.
Like Smith, he was first a student in the Just Bakery program and then was hired on as a part-time employee. Each earns $12.45 an hour, 72 percent more than Wisconsin’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
In total, four formerly incarcerated people now are employed by Just Bakery, including Joseph Frey. He was released in 2013 after serving 20 years in prison, including eight years for a rape conviction later overturned when DNA evidence exonerated him.
Although he later received money from the state for the wrongful conviction, he left prison broke and homeless.
“When push comes to shove, most people are going to get out of prison,” Frey said. “We’ve got to help them find the right path. We can’t just hang them out to dry.”
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Students accepted into the program spend the first month solely in a classroom, five days a week, learning such things as food safety, baker’s math and job readiness. The program is free to them, but they receive no salary while they are students, so they must find a way to support themselves during their studies.
The classroom component is held at Lakeview Lutheran Church on the city’s North Side, which provides rent-free space.
By the second month, the students begin learning hands-on skills. For this component, the program rents commercial kitchen time at Food Enterprise and Economic Development (FEED) Kitchens, a facility at 1219 N. Sherman Ave. Jim McLaughlin, who worked 10 years for La Brioche bakery in Madison and owned his own bakery business for a time, is the on-site teacher for this portion.
Just Bakery is one of several efforts in the area designed to boost people who face employment barriers. The River Food Pantry on the city’s North Side operates a program in which pantry clients who are unemployed or underemployed complete a professional baker training program. Clients of Porchlight Inc., a nonprofit organization that works with the homeless, produce and sell jams, sauerkraut and other products.
From January through September of last year, 41 students participated in the Just Bakery program, of which 25 obtained employment and one went on to culinary school, said Linda Ketcham, MUM executive director. Glenn finds potential students in part by speaking at monthly meetings of state probation and parole agents.
It costs MUM about $3,300 for each student who goes through the program. Seed money came from a $1,000 grant from the Willy Street Co-op. Sales and private donations now make up the largest portion of the annual budget, followed by funds from Dane County, United Way of Dane County, and the city of Madison, Ketcham said.
She would like to see Just Bakery open a retail store within five years. Glenn hopes to cut that time in half. With a retail outlet, Just Bakery would be able to hire more graduates, some full time, Glenn said.
For now, 18 churches allow Just Bakery to sell items in their lobbies, usually on a monthly basis. On a high-sales Sunday, the program brings in $1,000 to $1,200, Glenn said.
The money goes back to the program.
The people selling the items at churches are a mix of employees and students, who are required to give back 30 hours of volunteer time to the program.
Middleton Community United Church of Christ is among the sales outlets.
The Rev. Jim Iliff said that when dealing with a politically charged topic such as the criminal justice system, there’s the potential for disagreement among church members. However, this has not been the case with Just Bakery.
“We discussed it with our mission board, and it was not controversial,” he said. “This is a way to really help people put their lives back together. There’s been nothing but a good response to both the program and its products.”