By Anita Garner
I love AARP. I joined way back when they sent me that first “Hello you’re getting older” letter and I haven’t looked back. AARP Magazine’s current issue features stories about people getting on with it, doing what needs to be done. It’s inspiring to learn about Jeff and his community and how they’re adjusting to what’s going on right now.
Jeff Owens bakes loaves of bread for his neighbors in a wood-fired oven in his backyard. In ordinary times, Jeff, 53, works as a masonry contractor in Riverview, Michigan.
Craftsman Bakes Bread in Backyard for Neighbors in Need
Mason Jeff Owens turns his outdoor oven into a community bakery
When all this started, people couldn’t find bread in the stores. My neighbors knew I baked, so they started calling me. I’m a mason, and I had built a wood-fired oven in my backyard for pizza parties. I started baking loaves of bread and giving them away to friends, neighbors, health care workers and people in need. With my wife, two kids and stepmom helping, we’re up to baking more than 100 loaves a day, every weekday. People sign up online and then line up in their cars for pickup.
Many of the people who pick up for themselves also have “bread buddies” — people stuck at home who they deliver to. We also have helpers — I call them my breadheads — who deliver 27 loaves a day to the local fire department, which takes them to senior-housing communities, and another 27 loaves to hospitals.
Everything is sanitary. We all wear gloves, and we wipe down our stainless steel counters constantly. The bread bakes at 350 to 470 degrees and goes right into paper bags. And people say it’s the best bread they’ve ever had. Someone wrote on our Facebook page, “It’s love in a paper bag.”
The whole thing has become a project for our community. We use 100 pounds of white flour a day, and a lot of that is funded through donations. I ran out of seasoned wood, so my breadheads bring it to me. A local Masonic Home donated a 1940s-era 20-quart mixer after they heard that I was using a 6-quart home model. I needed help refurbishing it, so one of my breadheads drove two towns away to pick up a used commercial bread hook for mixing, and another welded it for me, all within 24 hours. The mixer is a real World War II–era machine. We call her Messy Betsy. She’s really helped the effort. When I needed a gasket to seal the door to the oven, a neighbor offered one from an oven they were discarding.
Bread recipients have been so eager to help out that we got a Salvation Army collection kettle for cash donations. We don’t need much for the bread, and this way the money can go where it’s needed.
The process never really stops. I fire up the stove at night, and by morning it’s the perfect temperature for the first batch.