Bread Project Mourns Co-Founder Lucie Buchbinder

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday June 26, 2007

A new class of 15 students began the semester at the Bread Project at the Berkeley Adult School (BAS) Monday. In the first hour, this group of future bakers learned to differentiate between ounces and pounds, a few new vocabulary words for use in the kitchen, and, most importantly, they learned about Lucie Buchbinder. 

Buchbinder, co-founder of the Bread Project, a cooking training program for low-income adults, was killed in a train accident at Oakland's Jack London Square Tuesday. 

The Amtrak train that had hit Buchbinder had been traveling south from Sacramento. Buchbinder, 83, had been distracted by her cellphone and apparently did not see the train approaching. 

“I saw it on the news,” said Bread Project student Latoya Davis, a 30-year-old single parent of two. “I am sad that we won’t see her around here ever again.” 

“Anybody who has the motivation to create a program like this has to have a big heart,” said Coral Gardener, 24, who enrolled in the Bread Project after hearing about it at the Women’s Daytime Drop-in Center in Berkeley. 

Both Davis and Gardener have dreams of becoming pastry chefs. Instructor Nel Dias-DeSilva said the program has placed many students in professional kitchens. 

“Lucie’s vision was to provide hands-on training in cooking and training to low-income groups,” he said while introducing the class to scales and measurements Monday. “Our aim is to get every student an entry-level job in the food business. We can’t promise them a job as a pastry chef, but it’s possible.” 

As the BAS community mourned within the school Monday, Lily Divito, executive director of the Bread Project, spoke to the Planet about Buchbinder. 

“She was just so genuine,” Divito said, glancing at pictures of a silver-haired Bucbinder talking to her students. “She was so healthy and had an immense amount of energy. When she started the Bread Project, she was 75, but never stopped working. Since it was a start-up, there was no staff, nothing. I was hired in June 2002 as the assistant director.” 

The Bread Project was born in 2000 when Buchbinder met Susan Phillips, a social worker in San Francisco. 

“We were both working in affordable housing in the Tenderloin,” Phillips said. 

“When our low-income tenants approached us to help them find a job, I had an idea about the bread project. Research showed that baking as a trade paid significantly above the minimum wage and that it was a job that had a career ladder. Neither of us had any training in baking, but Lucie, with her experience in starting three nonprofit organizations, had the know-how.” 

Phillips and Buchbinder approached Michael Suas of the San Francisco Baking Institute who agreed to train students and provide space and equipment for classes at cost. 

Since its inception in 2001, the program has worked with organizations such as the Oakland Private Industry Council, the San Mateo County Human Services and the Berkeley Adult School. 

“It was Lucie who brought the Bread Project to us,” said BAS principal Margaret Kirkpatrick, who has been with the institution for over a decade. “She showed us how the program kept with the main goal of our school, that is serving adults. It fit exactly with our mission. We had a kitchen that wasn’t being used and they had a need. It was a collaboration waiting to happen.” 

When the adult school moved from the old campus to 1701 San Pablo Ave., Buchbinder insisted on planning the new kitchen herself. 

“She planned everything from where the new sinks would go in to where the oven would fit,” said Kirkpatrick. “Her energy was simply amazing.” 

A lifelong advocate of the economically disadvantaged, Buchbinder was born in Vienna, Austria, and fled to Amsterdam through Kindertransport after the Nazi’s occupied her country. 

After living in England for a while, Buchbinder moved to New York with her family. She finally ended up in Sacramento and attended UCLA and UC Berkeley. 

After a short stint teaching English at UC Berkeley, Buchbinder worked with HUD in San Francisco for a long time in low-cost housing. 

“She was politically very active and was a member of the Electoral College,” said Phillips. “She showed me that in order to accomplish something you had to work very hard. She had the energy of a 18-year-old. Even at 76, she was working 50 to 60 hours every week. The last time I met her she told me that she was tying up loose ends in her life to prepare for possible death, but I don’t think she had expected to die so violently.” 

Both Phillips and Buchbinder retired in 2005. Today the Bread Project has five sessions at BAS and two at the Oakland Adult School. 

It has served more than 500 people from diverse ethnic, social and economic backgrounds since its inception. About 75 percent of the program’s graduates go on to find work and 84 percent of those who find work stay employed after a year. 

As Monday’s class came to an end, Henry Boatwright, a new student, said he was sorry to miss the chance to meet Buchbinder. 

“I have heard so much about her,” he said. “I am glad she started something like this for folks like us. I want to thank her for that. I have done lots of things in my life. Roofing, painting, landscaping. But what I really want to do is learn how to bake. Soups and sandwiches and stuff, that’s what I really want to do. And now I can finally do that.”