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Profiles in Stewardship: Kevin and Melinda McGrath, Owners of McGrath’s Brick Oven Bakehouse

Posted by Dieter Bouma in Environmental Education in Alumni in Profiles in Stewardship | Jan 10, 2014

Kevin and Melinda McGrath found their passion through Au Sable. This isn't an uncommon thing to hear, but with the McGrath's, it was a little different. Sure, their Au Sable courses, of which they took many (five to be exact), played a formational role in their education; the community developed important, supportive friendships, especially when they joined the staff as environmetal education intern and head chef (Kevin) and nutrition intern (Melinda); and, importantly, being part of Au Sable allowed them to meet one another. But what opened the avenue for the good work they do today was hearing about, and then working for, the Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery in Traverse City, Michigan. Through the bakery, they saw the opportunity to wed their care for God's earth with care for healthy diet and good food by creating artisanal breads through brick oven baking.

The McGrath's are now owners of McGrath's Brick Oven Bakehouse in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. "Eating," as Wendell Berry notes, "is an agricultural act." The McGraths take this seriously as Owners of McGrath's Brick Oven Bakehouse:

What do you do in your current position?

In December 2012, we started our own business and converted the attached garage of our house into a commercial bakery and built a large 4 ft.x8.5 ft. wood-fired brick oven onto it. We officially opened in June 2013, specializing in baking rustic, European-style sourdough breads. With no employees at this point, the entire process is in our hands. From cutting wood and firing the oven, to mixing, shaping, and baking loaves, to bagging it all up and delivering/selling the bread, it makes for a very full-time job. We must also spend a lot of time doing public relations, accounting, marketing, and customer service as we learn to promote our business and product.

Why is this work important to creation care?

One of the most practical ways we can have an impact on creation is to make well-informed, wise decisions about what we consume, and informing others about the impacts their decisions may be having as well. A large portion of what people consume is in the form of food, and the way food is produced on the farm or by businesses (such as a bakery) can either be sustainable or destructive to the earth and our bodies. The choices we make in what we eat is directly tied to how God's creation is cared for all around the world.

We try our best to know where our ingredients are coming from and to choose the most sustainable path, both for the earth and our bodies. This includes all organic grains, most milled within 40 miles of us and some even grown within that same range. We also do not have any yeast or sugar in our bakery. All of the bread is leavened using a sourdough starter. Sourdough levening is a technique that has diminished with industrial food production. The techniques for mass bread production affects on how we can actually digest grain, and by using sourdough starter we make our loaves of bread more nutritious than its yeasted counterpart (which has shown to cause health problems over the past 100 years).

What about your work gives you hope?

It is so inspiring to realize that we get to be a part of a growing movement, seeing that the American people are slowly changing the way they think about food. Buying local and organic food is becoming a driving force in many communities. Just look at the number of farmer's markets that have popped up in the past 5-10 years. Every year, there are more and more small artisans like Melinda and I crafting food products using age old methods that are sustainable to the environment rather than destructive. Since we started baking we have been able to find all sorts of producers in our local area who are either farming sustainably or supporting sustainable methods for their businesses. Almost all of these businesses are young and growing, which tells me that things are changing and going in the right direction.

What was most memorable and important to you about your time at Au Sable?

I think what has really stuck with me about Au Sable is the sense of place that I had there. Being a part of the community for three consecutive years, it began to feel like home to me. It still does feel like home actually, even though it has been challenging to visit as we've started our business. There is something very special and inspiring about the land, the community that gathers in the summer months, and the staff that are there all year round. The like-mindedness with regard to creation care has been contagious and life changing.

How does your faith in Jesus Christ affect the work you do today?

My faith in Jesus Christ is ultimately the reason I choose sustainability. Most other people in my field chose the road of sustainability for different reasons, whether it be health (a big one for food), for the quality of their product (better practices make for better tasting food), or anxiety about the degradation of land and what that means for future generations. The reason my commitment to this work does not waver is that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, and we are commanded to care for it as stewards. It is my faith in Jesus Christ that gives me the reasons to keep up with the work that I do.

How did your time at Au Sable help prepare you for what you are doing now?

I feel that my time at Au Sable has definitely prepared me for what I am doing now. Not because Aquatic Biology or Land Resources made me a better baker, but simply because of the over-arching mission of Au Sable and the realization of our undeniable duty to take care of the earth (and what better way to learn how to care about it than to be immersed in it through courses?). This impacted so many decisions about starting the business and continues to do so as we choose ingredients, contemplate methods, and more.

Why do you think people should continue to study at Au Sable today?

Au Sable's mission statement is to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God's earth. This is an important part of the Christian faith that is under-emphasized, ignored, or worse  in many of today's churches. I see that Au Sable is playing a vital role in the lives of students as they find guidance to better learn their place in this world the Lord has made. I know it has for me and can continue to do so for so many more students as they spend time on campus and learn from the wonderful experiences each course has to offer.