When Willa Pelini messaged Paola Velez about co-hosting a bake sale to benefit the Minnesota Freedom Fund, Velez took a day to think it through — and to do some baker’s math. Throughout April and May, Velez, a James Beard Award finalist in 2020 for her work at Washington, DC’s Kith/Kin (where she is currently furloughed), hosted a fundraising pop-up called Doña Dona featuring doughnuts inspired by her Dominican-American childhood. The pop-up raised a little over $1,000 for immigrant rights organization Ayuda, which Velez describes as both a lot of money and in the grand scheme of things, not nearly enough. If she and Pelini teamed up, that $1,000 could become $2,000. And what if she opened up the project to a wider array of people, and shared everything she knew about running a successful pop-up fundraiser?
Velez typed up a mission statement and several detailed documents about how to bake at scale and raise funds, and emailed them over to Pelini, a pastry chef at the D.C. restaurant Emilie’s. “We both speak the same language — pastry math,” Velez says. “So I said, ‘Willa, if we both participate and make 150 pieces of one dessert and price it out at $8, individually we’ll raise $1,200 dollars. If we ask everyone to participate virtually and decentralize it, we might be able to get 80 participants, and 1,200 times 80 is $96,000.’” The scale of the project seemed daunting, but the international movement for black lives in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer fueled a sense of urgency and ambition. “If we donate a little bit of money, we can make a little bit of change; with others, we can donate a lot of money that can make a lot of change.” They called their fundraiser Bakers Against Racism.
Eighty participants in Bakers Against Racism seemed like a huge reach to Velez and Pelini at the time. But the little bake sale bootstrapped by three DC chefs (a third collaborator, Rob Rubba, designed the graphics) has blown way, way past that to become a worldwide phenomenon. Participants in Bakers Against Racism, which opened its pre-sales on Monday (many bakers sold out far ahead of the Friday pick-ups), hail from 200 cities around the U.S.; hubs have formed in London, Berlin, and Paris, and Velez says the movement has reached five continents. Pastry chefs, professional bakers, and home cooks across the country are selling cookies and challah to support causes both national and essential to their communities. That’s by design — the whole process has been decentralized, with a broad list of suggested charities to support, so every baker has the chance to impact their own local causes.
According to foodtimeline.org, the phrase “bake sale” became popular in the early 20th century as a way to describe the age-old human practice of donating time, materials, and labor to raise money via baked goods. Since then, it’s become a uniquely American tradition, tied to women’s participation in charitable causes. Bake sales have played roles in political movements before — most notably in the case of George Gilmore’s Club from Nowhere, which sold peach pies, pound cakes, and hot meals to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and which Velez cites as an inspiration for her own baking activism. But since Donald Trump’s election spurred politically liberal women, especially white women, to become more involved in activism, the bake sale has become an increasingly large-scale and familiar tool, especially in the restaurant community. In New York, pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz is renowned for her Planned Parenthood bake sales, which began in 2016.
In Los Angeles, Gather for Good, an all-volunteer organization run by Sherry Mandell and Stephanie Chen and co-founded with Zoe Nathan of the Rustic Canyon group, launched in February 2017, and their bake sales have since raised nearly $100,000 for causes as varied as mental health advocacy to providing lawyers for families separated at the border. At the same time that Pelini and Velez brainstormed their bake sale, Mandell, who runs the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project, and Chen, who owns Sugarbear Bakes, decided, as Mandell put it, to “get the band back together” to support the movement for black lives (they have since folded under the Bakers Against Racism banner).
“We were already talking about doing this with COVID,” Mandell says. “Other events we’ve done have been very much about coming together. We had to think of a way we could come together but still be apart.” Their solution was to launch a Pies for Justice initiative with many of the city’s best-loved restaurants and chefs, offering pre-sales for pies this Friday, June 19, on their website, with pick-ups organized for the next day. Proceeds from the effort will be split between Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Gathering for Justice, an (unaffiliated) organization fighting against racial injustice in the prison system.
Roxana Jullapat, the baker and co-owner of the Los Angeles cafe Friends & Family, was unable to coordinate with the larger bake sales happening this week, and instead held her own bake sale Monday to support a black-run hyper-local effort to feed the homeless, Brown Bag Lady. Bake sales were always meaningful to Jullapat, but now that meaning has completely changed. “Pre-COVID, [the bake sale] is a very studied, measurable tool to raise money and bring awareness. Post-COVID, it’s many other things — it’s a healing device, it’s a way to make a statement about where you stand.” Jullapat believes online donations are important, but picking up a baked good engages people in a different way — and offers a concrete action people struggling to save their businesses can take in the face of uncertainty. “There’s an underlying feeling of, The house is burning, might as well share while we still have it. In three months, we could all be going under, so might as well do it now.”
The bakers taking part in Bakers Against Racism around the world describe a similar sense of purpose, often despite the challenges they’ve been weathering during the pandemic. In Paris, Janae Lynch, an African-American expat and a pastry chef at the doughnut shop Boneshaker, says joining the bake sale was important to her both to support the cause in the U.S., and address France’s persistent racism and police brutality. “We thought that since food brings joy, we could support fighting for black lives, fighting against police brutality and systemic and institutionalized racism. It’s a global issue.”
In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Melanie Lino, who co-owns Lit Coffee Roastery and sells her baked goods under her company Made by Lino, is baking to support two organizations in the Lehigh Valley fighting systemic injustice. She first got involved with the bake sale because she’d formed an online friendship with Velez, who like Lino is Dominican-American. All of Lino’s baked goods have already sold out, and she raised over $2,400. “Everything’s been so heavy for awhile right now, and it was such an incredible feeling [to see] this many people show up in a short period of time, and this many people decide to volunteer their time to help,” she says. “We raised all this money, 100 percent of which can be used to better the lives of other people.”
Velez describes a similar sense of solidarity and uplift at the heart of the Bakers Against Racism, which she calls a “pure moment.” But she also does not want the restaurant industry to engage in a bake sale against racism and then do nothing to address the rampant racial discrimination in professional kitchens. On Instagram, she noted that some restaurants joining the bake sale have not addressed the racism in their own workplaces, even when employees have asked them to. “Don’t use another black life to make yourself look good,” she writes. To me, she added, “Now that you’re saying you’re open to fighting against racism, if you’ve been called out and told you’re racist in your establishment, what are you going to do to change the systems you’ve heavily relied on for profit?”
In the #bakersagainstracism Instagram hashtag, a surreal, very 2020 phenomenon emerged: white-run accounts previously dedicated to burnished sourdough or cookies with animal faces are now decorating their wares with revolutionary Black Power fists. Velez notes that the Google Drive, which goes out to every participant, includes a document of podcasts and videos for bakers to listen to while they work in order to educate themselves on, say, turning performative wokeness into genuine action. The bake sale isn’t just about raising funds, or awareness, outwardly; participants can take the time to deepen their own commitment to fighting for black lives, too.
As for Velez, she opted to bake a passionfruit strawberry buckle with a salty streusel, “something simple, not extravagant, though it’s gonna be tasty.” It sold out immediately. Right now, she is trying to keep up with her grassroots mega-success and watching hubs form organically, sometimes in places which would have once been unthinkable, like Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy. She hopes Bakers Against Racism is only the beginning of a larger cultural transformation. “It’s given people the confidence to say: You’re going to buy this cake and stop being racist. That’s it.”
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent