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Cultivators: Giving Kitchen

Cultivators: Giving Kitchen
Written by Erin Byers Murray | Photo by Brad Kaplan

To Give and Give Again

The food industry-supporting, Georgia-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen is turning its eye toward substance abuse recovery–and a major expansion

In the first two weeks after the world shut down in March 2020, Giving Kitchen (GK), an Atlanta-based nonprofit whose mission is to provide emergency assistance to food service workers in crisis, received twenty times the traffic it normally saw. It was more than they’d received in all of 2019, in fact. Since it was founded in 2013, GK has helped more than 7,100 food service workers—in 2020 alone, they assisted 2,500. As hospitality workers saw their jobs disappear overnight, the organization was called upon for financial assistance, health and housing support, and more. 

While that specific moment in time was a massive crisis for everyone involved in the industry, GK was founded in response to a more personal one. Ryan Hidinger was a chef in Atlanta when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His community, family, friends, and many strangers, rallied together to raise funds that were meant to cover medical bills and help the family get through one year. Setting out with a goal of $25,000, they ended up raising more than ten times that amount. 

“It ignited this idea that there’s belief in humanity and that it can come from the encouragement of a community supporting us,” says Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, Ryan’s widow and a co-founder of GK. Because of the response, Jen, Ryan, and a number of friends and nonprofit and legal experts set out to create an organization that could be there to help all food service workers in crisis. 

Over the past eight years, the organization has evolved from offering direct financial assistance to those undergoing crises, like injury, illness, or death of a family member, to building a stability network, which provides referrals to health, housing, and family services. Now serving all of Georgia, the programs are available to any food service worker (employed by restaurants, caterers, concessions, food trucks, and cafeterias) who asks for help and qualifies. 

Meanwhile, they’ve also established a training program for suicide prevention—an issue that hit home when legendary chef, TV personality, and world wanderer Anthony Bourdain died by suicide in 2018. At the time, the team at GK had just finished a training session with the QPR Institute—QPR standing for “question, persuade, refer,” or practical steps for identifying and preventing suicide. The timing was serendipitous as calls to GK came flooding in. Today, GK offers a free, 45-minute virtual suicide prevention training through the QPR Institute to any food service industry person, anywhere in the country, effectively offering a mental health toolkit to the industry. In 2019, GK was recognized by the James Beard Foundation as Humanitarian of the Year for their work. 

This winter, Giving Kitchen launched its latest initiative: Providing support for those dealing with substance abuse and addiction. Long hours in a demanding, fast-paced environment, which also offers proximity to alcohol, contributes to the pervasive use in the industry. According to the American Addiction Centers, 17 percent of food service workers have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder. After many years of research, GK found a way to help. Their initiative provides financial assistance to those going through, or having gone through, in-patient treatment programs by covering bills for housing and other essentials—aid that not only serves the person struggling with the issue, but their family as well. 

That key component of helping the family, says Andrew Zimmern, James Beard Award-winning TV personality and chef, is what makes the program effective. As a recovering addict himself, Zimmern has spent the last 29 years sober and working in the mental health and addiction space to help those struggling. He’s now a partner and spokesperson for GK. 

“What if the person who goes away for twenty-eight days, or longer, into treatment, is one of the primary wage earners of the family? That could be catastrophic. So, to eliminate that little piece, to let that person know that their family is going to be taken care of, that’s a very powerful mechanism,” Zimmern says. Giving Kitchen, at its very essence, helps that family.” 

And soon, their work will impact those outside of Georgia, too: They have plans to expand to five states within the next five years. Having already provided more than four million dollars in aid, Jen says, “Our goal is to be able to serve teams of thousands of food service workers.” 

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