On a Sunday morning at Leslie N. Shaw Park in South Los Angeles, a group of about seven women are selling pastries for a few bucks a piece. They include strawberry scones, buckwheat danishes filled with raspberry jelly, molasses cookies and savory bacon cheddar biscuits. Nearby, a golden retriever plays fetch and children scramble over a castle-themed playset. It's about as wholesome a scene as it gets. This isn't your average bake sale, however. It's an installment of Bake & Gather, a grassroots fundraising series spearheaded by Zoe Nathan, one of Los Angeles' most celebrated pastry chefs. Nathan is using her talent for an ulterior, yet altruistic goal: to get neighbors out of their homes and into face-to-face conversations with one another at a time when Americans may feel scared, helpless or anxious about the tumultuous political climate.
Nathan and her husband, Josh Loeb, own several restaurants as Rustic Canyon Group. This collection of restaurants include Huckleberry Bakery, where Nathan's much lauded pastries can be found. Yet the idea for Bake & Gather did not come to Nathan while baking. It came to her on January 21, the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the President of the United States. Nathan, alongside approximately 350,000 Angelenos by LAFD estimates, headed downtown to participate in the Women's March, which occurred concurrently with similar marches in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Nathan felt uplifted by the demonstration and wanted to extend that feeling of fulfillment to a safe, friendly space where neighbors could mingle, get to know one another and find a commonality. The march, as fulfilling as it may have been, came with a certain “level of fear” for Nathan.
“I have three really young children and there was something unsettling about having to write my phone number and what they're allergic to on their arms," Nathan said. "[However], it's also really important for me to be able to share my life, my feelings and my passions with my children. So I wanted to find a way to gather together, in the name of good, with our families."
Bake sales are both familiar and nostalgic, dating back to at least the 1800s in the United States. They're an accessible, low-ask means of raising funds while still offering something of tangible value in return. Plus, Nathan says, "a bake sale can nourish your belly, and your heart, and your mind." For Nathan, it was an obvious fit.
Bake & Gather launched in February at Rustic Canyon Park in Santa Monica, featuring pastries and coffee from Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe, Caffe Luxxe and Rusticoffee. Since then, there have been about a half-dozen other events, including one in St. Louis, Missouri. These events have occurred in public spaces, such as parks, public restaurants, parking lots or, in some cases, a host's garage.
Bake & Gather is not exclusive to Nathan and her friends in the local culinary scene. Anyone can put on a Bake & Gather for any cause. Nathan chose to raise money for the ACLU and Public Counsel, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants, veterans, the homeless, low-income residents and other underserved communities. Other events have raised funds for charities including Planned Parenthood, Watts Community Healing Garden and ProPublica.
The event at Leslie N. Shaw Park was hosted by Sarah Lange. Lange, a baker who has worked at Cake Monkey and The Hart and the Hunter, runs Bearclaw Kitchen. She uses a commercial kitchen to produce Bearclaw's granola, bars and other treats, which Angelenos can typically find at various locations including Dinosaur Coffee in Silver Lake and Menotti's in Venice. Lange's charity of choice for the event, A Sense of Home, helps youth who have aged out of the foster care system build their homes or apartments using donated furniture and housewares. Lange chose Leslie N. Shaw Park for the venue as it's located in her neighborhood and had completed a renovation last spring.
"People in the neighborhood have been trying to keep [the park] from falling victim to graffiti and drugs and stuff like that, so we just want to use it as much as possible," Lange said. "It's the perfect neighborhood spot for me to host something like this."
Pastries at this particular event were priced at $2 or $3, generating over $1,000 in donations. Baked goods at other Bake & Gather events in more affluent neighborhoods have come with a higher suggested donation, but always strive to be accessible to all. Most Bake & Gather events raise between $3,000 and $5,000, while the wildly successful inaugural event pulled in nearly $9,000. Nathan said she's had a customer give her $500 for a scone, and she's given cookies and other sweets away for free. Ultimately, for Nathan, it’s not about the money. Rather, she hopes that people feel empowered to turn around and raise money for the causes that are important to them.
"I think people want to give right now. I think people want to feel a purpose, and want to have a job to do," she says.
She notes that a lot of people donate using their computers or behind closed doors, without getting out and talking to anyone. It's when people are afraid and in their homes alone, without interaction or community, that Nathan believes people can sink to their worst and resort to unnecessary negativity. After all, a scroll through the comments section on any politically charged article will reveal an abundance of aggression.
"When people aren't scared and feel supported and happy, they can think clearer and make better decisions. I wanted to take the anger and the hate out of the equation," Nathan said, noting that her dream for Bake & Gather is that it becomes an apolitical event in which people aim to do good things for their communities, whether it’s donating to a major organization or raising funds to fix a neighbor’s porch.
Those interested in hosting their own fundraiser can visit Bake & Gather's website, where they can create an event and download and print flyers and other materials. Hosts are not required to approve their event or charity of choice with Nathan or previous hosts. It's also not a requirement that hosts bake. People are free to utilize whatever talents they may have, be it reading children's stories at a park or teaching a community yoga class. Nathan and other Bake & Gather veterans are available to help with planning and organization, should hosts decide they want assistance.
"Just go on the website," Nathan says. "It's plug and play. You can do it as much or as little as you want. Raise money for whatever your heart desires."
The next Bake & Gather is on Saturday, May 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Cake Monkey Bakery. Proceeds will benefit MEND - Meet Each Need with Dignity.