The bake sale is a time-honored fund-raising tradition. But at Our Shared Ground, a Moorestown nonprofit dedicated to nutrition and agriculture education, they do it a little differently.
Instead of banana bread and slice-and-bake cookies, think crusty artisan sourdough and delicate galettes - proofed in a refrigerated shipping container and baked fresh each week in a custom-made wood-fired oven-on-wheels.
Quality, said Cynthia Quinton, executive director of the four-year-old organization, is the whole point.
It's not only that many children around the region don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables (never mind really good bread) - they don't even understand where these things come from.
"We wanted to nurture children's curiosity about food, and really bring good food to the marketplace and to people who don't have access," she said.
So she set about creating an organic farm that could double as both an outdoor classroom and a viable food source for the area's hungry - and help support itself with produce and bread sales.
Our Shared Ground sells loaves of seeded sourdough and olive bread at $8 apiece, plus pastries and farm-fresh produce, each Saturday morning at the Burlington County Farmers' Market located at the Burlington County Community Agricultural Center, a former dairy farm that's been preserved as farmland by the county.
Though most of the produce from the farm they operate is donated, some is sold at market, too.
"We [grow] Asian greens, different varieties of tatsoi, bok choy, and so on. So we have quite a following of different ethnic groups," Quinton said.
Accomplishing all that on a shoestring has required some creative thinking, said Quinton, standing in the mobile, plein-air kitchen that's currently parked amid the complex of towering silos and barns at the agricultural center.
"Usually, anything commercial, like a commercial bakery, is so expensive to set up - and we had very few resources," she said. "It's called Our Shared Ground, because literally everything's been shared with us."
When the organization first launched, a local farmer, Kiyo Moriuchi, let the group grow food on her land.
Then Quinton approached the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders for use of the county agricultural center. Now, Our Shared Ground is on its second season there, tending a total of 31/2 acres across two farms.
Most of what's grown in the field is distributed to community groups, hospitals, and the Cathedral Kitchen, a soup kitchen in Camden that also receives shipments of bread a couple of times a week. Quinton estimates the organization gave away 4,000 pounds of food last year.
"We're sharing our garden abundance and our bread abundance and our good fortune," Quinton said.
Still, the impetus for baking and selling bread was more entrepreneurial than philanthropic.
"It diversifies our income and helps us to afford the farm," she said.
The ad hoc bakery consists of the mobile oven, the shipping container, a few folding tables, and wheeled carts with zippered plastic cozies to block the wind. It's run by Donna Wallstin, a self-described "bread geek" who returned to Philadelphia a few years ago after working as a chef in the wine country outside San Francisco, where bread is something of an obsession, and in Portland, Ore., where baker Ken Forkish has become a culinary celebrity.
By comparison, Wallstin found this area's bread scene lacking.
She began cultivating her own sourdough starter, experimenting with recipes from Forkish and Chad Robertson of Tartine in New York.
"I was making something at home that I could not find anywhere, and the results at home were just blowing my mind," she said.
Still, some of the top bread bakers were swearing by wood-fired masonry ovens, and Wallstin wanted to build one of her own. "Then of course you run into regulations - especially in South Jersey."
But she also ran into Quinton (who is, incidentally, a most unlikely artisan-bread evangelist: She suffers from celiac disease). The two recognized symbiotic potential in their dreams of great food and great bread for all.
Since a commercial kitchen was beyond their budget, Quinton approached Jim Brennan, owner of SEA BOX, an East Riverton, N.J., company that makes and customizes shipping containers for anything from water-purification stations to telecommunications shelters. Brennan turned a shipping container into one large, well-insulated bread-proofing unit that functions as a prep kitchen and walk-in refrigerator in one.
The masonry oven was also custom-built. Since it's mobile, Quinton envisions taking it to schools starting this fall.
The result is not a high-volume business. (Nor has it eliminated the need to fund-raise. Our Shared Ground recently launched a sponsor-a-row campaign to raise $100,000 toward operating costs.) But Wallstin believes it's some of the best bread in the region, made with locally milled whole-wheat flour from Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown.
Last Friday afternoon, Wallstin was churning out about 100 golden-brown loaves of slow-fermented, high-hydration sourdough, with a crisp, chewy crust and an open crumb. She had started firing up the oven Thursday, allowing the bricks and refractory mortar to heat for nearly 24 hours before sweeping out the cinders and starting to bake.
By Saturday morning, when the farmers' market began at 8:30 a.m., the oven's built-in thermostat gauges had fallen to around 375 degrees, perfect for baking apple galettes and corn-chive-cheddar scones.
Now that the farm and bakery are up and running, Quinton's recalibrating her educational programs in the hope of reaching more children. Last year, the farm hosted a summer camp. This year, they're offering it as a field-trip destination, using Our Shared Ground's curriculum or the teacher's own.
Starting May 16, Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m. are family and volunteer nights, a bring-your-own-tools chance to help out, dig in the dirt, and snack on whatever's growing in the fields.
Quinton hopes those events will evolve into picnics or cookouts. After all, the wood-fired oven can cook just about anything. Last November, Quinton and Wallstin cooked Thanksgiving dinner in it.
Mostly, though, Quinton just wants children to experience the magic of walking through fields, digging in the dirt, and popping cherry tomatoes in their mouths.
"It gives children an opportunity, often for the first time, to understand that crops grow in soil. You can teach a lot about sustainability, the environment, water use," she said. Even the bread oven is a teaching tool. "Children are amazed that water, flour, and salt can produce something so delicious."