The baking programme bringing a sprinkle of sweetness into our prisons

Across the country, boxes of sweet treats are being sent out to the community from the most unlikely of places.

Behind the wire fence of Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison, something magical is happening. Week to week, a dedicated group of bakers is sprinkling pastel stars and dainty silver cachous onto shortbread, drizzling sticky caramel glaze onto apple and cinnamon scrolls, and gluing vanilla and chocolate yo-yos together with a buttery, sugary paste. Each sweet creation is then lovingly boxed up with a note from the baker, and sent out into the community. 

The Prison Bake programme is the work of Good Bitches Baking, a charity that began off the back of a deeply-appreciated cheese scone. Nic Murray was in the throes of a family health crisis when the warmed, delicious morsel was left at her desk by a kind anonymous colleague. She was so deeply touched by the gesture that it got her and co-founder Marie Fitzpatrick thinking: what if more of us started baking for people who really need it? 

Eight years later, Good Bitches Baking has expanded from a few friends on a Facebook page to a charity delivering to over 350 community organisations across the country, including everything from women’s refuges to drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres. “While they’re all very different sectors, what they all have in common is that they are all supporting people having a tough time,” general manager of Good Bitches Baking Katy Rowden explains. 

Image: Toby Morris

Volunteers from around the country can sign up to become bakers or drivers in their area, committing to as little as one bake or one delivery a month. The sweet treat is then packaged up in one of the signature GBB white boxes with an ingredient list and a handwritten note, and then delivered to someone having a tough time. For some recipients, it might be the only human contact they get all day, or might allow a skint volunteer group to enjoy shared kai. 

Whether it is a simple batch of Anzac biscuits or an iced rainbow cake, Rowden says the point of GBB is less about the product than the intent behind it. “I think sometimes things do feel a bit hopeless, and we would love to be able to solve society’s problems and not see people in pain or struggling,” she says. “We know that cake can’t solve the problems of the world, but we know that you can at least do something for one person who is having a crap day.” 

She calls it a “circle of kindness” that has since enveloped larger scale programmes, like corporate volunteer days and “collaborative bitching” with organisations that have previously been recipients of the baking, now whipping up treats themselves. Prison Bake is the latest project where GBB has left home kitchens and ventured out into the big wide world. The programme piloted at Rimutaka Prison before Covid-19 arrived on our shores in 2020. 

A baker gets to work in Hawkes Bay Regional Prison. (Photo: Supplied)

“People would assume that those that have ended up in prison have not necessarily been kind people, but we know for a fact that a lot of people who are in prison have never been on the receiving end of much kindness in their life,” Rowden explains. “Everything we do, we do with the belief that everyone has the innate ability to both give and receive kindness. In terms of thinking about the prison population, no more true is it than there.”

Although Covid-19 provided an extended pause on the programme rollout, it has started this year in both Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Women’s Prison. Holly Machill, volunteer co-ordinator at Christchurch Women’s Prison, says that Prison Bake was the “first thing on my list” when she started in the role back in January. “We just thought it would be such an amazing initiative to get on the site and so beneficial to the woman as well,” she says.

Any skepticism from participants was quickly quashed, especially after GBB sent down rainbow and glittery sprinkles to decorate biscuits that were headed for the women’s refuge. “As it went on, they were so keen and so engaged. I would see them during the week and they would double check that it was still going to be happening, it was really cool,” says Machill. Since then they’ve done scones, slices, and are working towards a layered chocolate cake. 

Kate McCormick and her two dogs. (Photo: Supplied)

Up in Hawke’s Bay Regional, Kate McCormick is overseeing their current Prison Bake programme, and has seen a similar enthusiasm and upskilling from her bakers. “We started out with apple cinnamon scrolls, which is terrifying when you’ve never baked before,” she says. In the first session, the dough was crumbling and dry and frustrations were high. “That’s when I told them to get their hands in it and start kneading, and everything started to change. 

“I said ‘it’s the warmth of your hands working the butter and sugar and flour all together. You’re doing this, the warmth of you and of your heart is in this’.”

The participants bake within their own self-contained units on site, buy their own ingredients and box up everything themselves to be sent out into the community. After a session, everyone has a chance to sample their creation with a cup of tea. “We did savoury muffins, and someone went to take an extra one,” says McCormick. “One of the guys said, ‘no, that’s enough, these are going to the homeless folks. We’re someplace warm and safe and they’re not’.” 

In a statement provided to The Spinoff from one of the participants, they praised the sessions provided by Good Bitches Baking. “[I] am grateful for the helpful tips that I have been taught throughout this. I love that the products get donated to such good causes – it’s such a great idea!,” they wrote. “As a child, I used to bake with my grandmother and I look forward to being able to bake for her with the tips I have learned.”

Sprinkles for the Women’s Refuge cookies. Image: Supplied

Rowden says the feedback from the programme so far has been heartening, and speaks to the broader goal of GBB. “It’s about closing this circle of kindness. Maybe you weren’t in a position to give back or do something before because you were in crisis, but now you are in the right place to be able to give back.” The goal is to eventually roll out Prison Bake in prison facilities around the country, a plan which Machill from Christchurch Women’s Prison supports. 

“These people have so much to give, and they want to be able to give, and it’s giving them that opportunity which is super valuable,” she says. 

Everyone looks forward to Wednesday afternoon in Hawkes Bay, and both bakers and volunteers alike will miss it when the programme wraps up this month. In class yesterday, one of the bakers asked McCormick if she will acknowledge him once he is out of prison and they bump into each other on the street. “I said ‘excuse me, of course I’ll acknowledge you’. He said, ‘but what if you’re with your family? What are you going to tell them about how you know me?’”

“I just replied: ‘I’ll tell them you’re my baking buddy’.”

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