The first thing that catches my eye at Better Health Bakery in East London is a row of wooden shelves weighed down with today's wares. There are sourdoughs with artfully decorated crusts, black olive-studded loaves, and a floury vollkorn loaf. On a small counter beside them, golden cinnamon swirls and plump tahini honey buns vie for my attention.
"Hi, can I help you?"
I lift my eyes from the baked goods to a voice coming from the vast, open bakery beyond the counter. Back here, several bakers are hard at work, feeding sourdough starters and bringing out proving baskets from an adjoining room. A woman wearing a floury apron appears at the door and welcomes me in.
"I'm Debbie," she says, "I'm just making sandwiches for lunch at the moment. Come through."
At Better Health Bakery, hard work and care evidently goes into the bread, but what the bakers get out of their work is equally as important. Founded five years ago, the bakery is run by Hackney-based mental health charity, Centre for Better Health. It's a social enterprise that helps people recovering from mental health issues improve their wellbeing and gain workplace skills through trainee placements.
Debbie takes me round the corner to where she's preparing the sandwiches with today's filling, miso aubergine with grated carrot and cucumber. Usually trainee placements last for three months but Debbie tells me she couldn't keep away after her time at the bakery.
"I started as a trainee after I had a breakdown and was referred here by my psychiatrist. I had worked as a chef before and wanted to keep the cooking element while doing something that wasn't so hard work and meant I had some interaction with people," she explains, stuffing the freshly baked rolls with roasted aubergine. "I loved the placement so I came back as a volunteer and have been here ever since. That was three years ago!"
I ask what it is she loves about Better Health Bakery. The answer is simple: "This is a caring place. I wanted to get back into work but not all workplaces care about you."
In an office upstairs from the bakery, Siobhan MacMahon, the trainee and volunteer coordinator, tells me that while this is a working business, flexibility with employees is crucial.
"Better Health Bakery is an employment project based around mental health. People who come and do trainee placements with us are recovering from mental ill health or really want to focus on their wellbeing," she says. "Some people are still living on wards and have had serious issues and some of the people have self-identified as having depression or anxiety and want to improve that. They might go straight from here into a job or it's something they're hoping to do in the future."
MacMahon continues: "We're always looking for volunteers to help out and for placement referrals. We also have a bike repair shop next door which operates in a similar way. It's just about giving people the space they need in order to develop the skills that they want to work on. We have deadlines and orders that we need to get out because the business relies on wholesale, selling to shops and cafes, but the atmosphere isn't high pressured as it might be in a kitchen elsewhere."
Better Health Bakery makes clear on its website and social media accounts that it is a social enterprise helping people with mental health issues. But inside the bakery, this isn't immediately obvious. The signs in the shop give descriptions of the breads and hot drinks on offer, rather than detailing the training they run. The structure of the team is also designed to mimic a standard bakery. Made up of trainees following the three month programme, volunteers, and professional bakers, head baker Damon Boyle tells me that regardless of status, everyone works together to make the high quality bread and pastries.
"We have volunteers working in the bakery as well and there's no difference between a trainee and a volunteer in some ways. It's just that the trainees follow the programme," says Boyle. "Trainees and volunteers get involved in all aspects of producing the breads, whether by hand or using the machine. We can't do a lot of really high skill things because we're reliant on trainees and volunteers to help us with production so we think about what products we can make and make well to survive in the market, to a standard that everyone is happy with."
While Better Health Bakery receive some money from the City and Hackney Wellbeing Network for people's placements, Boyle tells me that the project mainly supports itself using profits from the bakery. And as the government fails again and again to deliver on promises to improve mental health services in the UK, self-sustaining schemes like Better Health Bakery are more important than ever.
Back on the bakery floor, another trainee Matthew is folding olives into dough. He tells me that they need to make 500 loaves of bread today.
"It sounds like a lot but we'll get that many out," he assures me. "The highlight from being here has been learning to make the vollkorn. I have it with tuna and a bit of mayo, like a tuna crunch sandwich. You should definitely try it."
I ask what he hopes to achieve from the placement.
"It's actually my last week next week. I really don't want it to end, I've had the best time here. I'm going to continue baking. In the future, I'd like to be a cake decorator."
Despite the fact the team have large wholesale orders to fulfil as well as pastries and products for the shop, the atmosphere is focused but relaxed. Music plays over the speakers and most of the time, everyone works around one main table, studying recipes and honing their kneading techniques.
I ask head baker Boyle about the therapeutic side to baking. Scientific studies have found links between improved mental health and cooking or baking. Indeed this has led some cookery schools to offer "breaditation" (baking meditation) classes to help participants de-stress.
"I think baking is therapeutic. It's something quite basic and worthwhile—you get to see the finished product. People eat it and it has a lot of value. The process is fulfilling," he says. "It does have its challenges. It is hard work, physically, and there's a lot going on. Some people struggle with that but that struggle is natural. It's good to learn to deal with those things."
Boyle continues: "The bakery is also about teamwork. Everyone has to work as a team otherwise we don't make the bread. Mental health can be very isolating for people and they might not have a lot of contact with people. It helps for them to come in here and interact with people and see what that brings out for them."
Debbie agrees that as a trainee, she enjoyed having the opportunity to work on the bakery's stall at a local farmers' market. She says: "It's nice to be able to talk to people and interact. I still work on the market stall every other week. It's always really busy now as we've become better known as a bakery, so the day always goes fast. It's nice seeing people buy the bread and sandwiches because you've seen the process from start to finish."
The team start counting out the number of proving baskets needing for shaping loaves this afternoon. Debbie and Matthew lament the fact that he'll be leaving next week as they wheel out huge tubs of dough. One of the bakers overseeing today's work demonstrates how to pull the dough to stretch the gluten. Debbie puts out the sandwiches for the customers who have started coming into the shop for lunch and bids me goodbye, just as warmly as she greeted me.
She was right about the bakery. Other places might produce sourdough just as well, but none of it will have come from such a caring place.