Leah Lonsbury founded non-profit Just Bakery in 2017 as a place for resettled refugees in metro Atlanta to receive paid job training with a living wage. The bakery offers displaced people forced to flee their home countries an opportunity to build new skills and earn professional certifications, like ServSafe, to help provide long-term, economic security while reestablishing themselves in America. The foot in the door can be transformative for the bakers-in-training, many of whom have fled violence or conflict in countries like the Central African Republic, Congo, Pakistan, and Syria.
Lonsbury moved to Atlanta from Madison, Wisconsin, where a friend had created a program for formerly incarcerated people recently released from prison. The program utilized the marketplace, offering individuals a chance to learn new skills and help reestablish their lives after prison. She was inspired. Using a small grant from Oakhurst Baptist, where she attends church, Lonsbury tweaked the concept, tailoring it to the refugee experience in Atlanta.
“We start people at $15 per hour, which I don’t know of anywhere else in Atlanta you can come in with no high school diploma and get paid to train and work in a way that is paying off, literally,” says Lonsbury. “Our folks are purchasing homes and a second car so they can get to and from work independently and safely during the pandemic, and starting higher education. If folks can have access to earning a living wage, then everything else starts to fall into place.”
Some Just Bakery staff members have come to the United States in recent years, while others arrived as children and remember very little of their homeland. Food becomes the connection.
Just Bakery operates from of a licensed commercial kitchen outside of the city of Clarkston, east of Atlanta, and sells its baked goods through pop-ups, deliveries, and neighborhood drop-offs. Using as many local and sustainable ingredients as possible from Georgia growers and businesses, like pecans from New Ground Orchards and coffee from Clarkston-based Refuge Coffee Co., most of the bakery’s popular items are considered American baking classics, such as dark chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, multi-grain bread, blueberry muffins, and cinnamon rolls.
But, the bakers often incorporate ingredients and recipes from their own backgrounds. Head baker Bhima Thapa took inspiration from her home country of Nepal with the jeera cookie, a slightly sweet, spiced shortbread. The peanut butter curry cookies are flavored with hints of ginger. The peanut is native to the cuisines of several Just Bakery bakers. Then there’s the plantain-based banana bread, which was sold to celebrate bakers from Africa for Giving Tuesday last year.
“Food is the connector of human beings, and an opportunity to know each other and crawl across perceived or real differences,” says Lonsbury. “I wish more people knew about us and we had access to more people, because I think we’ve got a really amazing thing going because of the amazing folks that come to work with us.”
There was a bump in sales at the beginning of the pandemic, but Lonsbury says sales are down. Running a non-profit bakery throughout the health crisis has been difficult, especially in covering payroll. Now with COVID-19 vaccines widely available and people beginning to venture out more, she hopes business will also begin to return. She credits local organizations and the Atlanta community at-large for continuously supporting Just Bakery and allowing it to grow into a refugee-led organization.
They’re now working to open a storefront, a place to gather the community and expand Just Bakery’s training program so it can have an even greater impact.
”We have been so lucky, and the ways that doors have opened in the community. It’s like this needed to happen,” she says. “People have said ‘yes’ and been so generous at the right time, like the congregation letting us come bake for free.”
“It’s now a nonprofit, refugee-led organization, and we have partners doing incredible work all around us. We’re rich in people and experience and resources.”
People can pre-order for pickup or delivery via the Just Bakery website. Just Bakery currently delivers to Atlanta (inside the perimeter), Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Decatur, Pine Lake, Stone Mountain, and Tucker. The bakery also sells its baked goods on Saturday mornings at the Oakhurst Farmers Market in Decatur.