How a bakery is restoring hope in an Appalachian mining town

In the wake of extreme Appalachian poverty, this bakery in Kentucky is harnessing one community’s strength to restore purpose and dignity.

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A small mountain community in Kentucky has been hit hard by Appalachian poverty – an issue that is now all too common in the region that once fueled the Industrial Revolution.

As the coal industry becomes all but obsolete, unemployment throughout Appalachia continues to climb. Substance abuse has also become a pervasive issue, but a bakery in Jackhorn is doing its part to bring hope back to the community.

Black Sheep Bakery, located in the Hemphill Community Center in Jackhorn, is providing second chances to those who need it most, with steady employment opportunities and job training skills.

A Brief History of Appalachian Poverty

The birthplace of Lucille Ball, Patsy Cline, and Cormac McCarthy is an eastern region full of picturesque landscapes and hardworking mountaineers who for years, served as hallmarks of the American way.

Generations of Appalachians worked in the area’s coal mines, which fueled the industrialization and growth of the country for decades. The back-breaking labor was a source of pride for the Appalachian people, as well as their primary industry.

Even though it supported many generations of families, coal mining is grueling work that has led to an inordinate amount of injuries, accidents, and black-lung related deaths. As America began to turn to alternative sources of energy, the coal mining industry started to experience a rapid and disastrous decline.

During his campaign tour in 2016, President Donald Trump promised to save the coal industry. “We’re going to put those miners back to work. We’re going to get those mines open,” he exclaimed to crowds at a rally. “You’re going to be working your a**es off.” Despite these hefty promises, Appalachian poverty continues to be a major issue in 2020.

According to a report by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachian poverty is most prevalent in Kentucky where more than a quarter of all Appalachian Kentuckians fall below the poverty line.

The same report shows that those with jobs are earning well below the national average. In 2014, the per capita income of Kentucky’s Appalachian region was $30,308, compared to $46,049 nationally.

The Opioid Crisis Hits Appalachia

When the coal industry collapsed, it didn’t just take jobs with it, but hope. Unemployment led to depression, which often led to addiction, and addiction resulted in jail time for a disproportionate amount of Appalachians – creating a vicious, downward spiral across the entire region.

Appalachia now has the highest concentration of opioid addiction in the U.S. Those living in the region aged 25 to 44 are 70% more likely to die from an overdose as compared to the rest of the country.

While these numbers tell a story of severe poverty in Appalachia, there are those who are fighting back against these statistics and doing their part to restore pride in the region. 

Restoring Hope in Appalachia 

Black Sheep Bakery is a community-owned social enterprise focused on training the local workforce by providing jobs for previously incarcerated individuals, recovering addicts, and those displaced from the mining industry.

What started as a volunteer-driven initiative in the Hemphill Community Center that aimed to reconnect locals with Appalachian traditions, like open-fire cooking, has now spun into a successful business.

The bakery’s model demonstrates the power of offering second chances, and it serves as an example for communities all over the country of how to interrupt the vicious “addiction to incarceration to unemployment” cycle.

Gwen Johnson, co-founder and manager of the bakery, saw it as an opportunity to begin building a new economy for the region. She describes, “We have created an inclusive place of love and belonging for whoever wants to come… I was always a black sheep in my family, which gave me a heart for others.”

Bradley Johnson is one of many locals benefiting from the bakery’s vision. A veteran who fell on hard times, became an addict, and spent time incarcerated is now a proud baker. “After I got out, work was impossible,” explains Johnson.

“Look at me. Tattoos everywhere. I’ve got felonies. Nobody’s gonna say, ‘You’re perfect for this job!'” Gwen saw potential in Bradley, and despite his previous culinary experience being limited to cooking ramen noodles, she invited him to work as a baker.

Bradley continues, “Ten years ago, addiction was a taboo here. Now if you’re in recovery, they’re praising you to give you motivation and this is kind of like the center point for it all. People are seeing that we deserve a second chance.”

Writing a New Story 

Although Appalachian poverty has become more of a known issue throughout the rest of the country, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Gwen, a new story is being written. It’s one of hope, resilience, and determination.

The Black Sheep Bakery is still operating despite the on-going COVID-19 pandemic and even delivers to community members. The Bakery also offers free bread each night to anyone who needs it.

Since the outbreak, their sales have actually doubled as the community has rallied around the bakery and its mission. The strength of the Appalachian people which once served to mine coal is now being harnessed to restore purpose and dignity.

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