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How This Nonprofit is Helping Food Service Workers in Times of Crisis

Last fall, bartender Alex Howard faced a serious hand injury after an unexpected accident with his dog. The recovery time required a three-and-a-half month leave from work, leaving Howard at a loss for how he’d pay his bills.

“There really isn't a lot of security in any of the careers in this industry,” says Howard. “This accident showed me you can lose everything in a split second. Your health is what determines if you can make money or not, and if you can’t, there’s little assistance.” 

Fortunately, however, Howard did find assistance – not through his job, but through Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides emergency financial support to food service workers, along with a network of community resources. Soon after his injury, Howard filled out an application for financial aid, and within 24 hours he was connected to a case manager. Giving Kitchen went on to pay Howard’s rent and utility bills for the entirety of the time he couldn’t work.

“Most people in the hospitality industry have little to no insurance, so I was stuck with some hefty bills, and Giving Kitchen easing my financial strain made it so much more possible to not be completely buried, and also focus on healing without unnecessary stress,” says Howard.

A safety net of support for food service industry workers

Giving Kitchen is among a small number of national nonprofits, like CORE and Southern Smoke Foundation, designed to provide a safety net for foodservice workers in times of crisis. 

“Giving Kitchen is often helping those who have never asked for help a day in their life, but the reality is that oftentimes this is an industry that lives paycheck to paycheck,” says Giving Kitchen cofounder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick. “The average nationwide [in terms of] an unexpected bill a food service worker can’t afford is $400 to $500 per month.”

Giving Kitchen’s own story started with an unforeseen crisis and ensuing medical costs. In December 2012, Hidinger-Kendrick’s husband, Ryan Hidinger, fell ill, leading to a trip to the hospital for an MRI. The visit resulted in a stage-four cancer diagnosis. Ryan left with the news that he had just six months remaining to live. 

“It was our community – Ryan's bosses, chef mentors, friends in the industry and outside of the industry – who stepped up in a really major way,” says Hidinger-Kendrick. “They put on a benefit in his honor that ended up raising nearly $300,000 for us in one night, and it was that moment that really became this lightbulb that inspired the formation of Giving Kitchen.”

Ryan, a chef, had become well-known in the Atlanta restaurant community for his work at Bacchanalia, Floataway Café, and Muss & Turner’s. He and Hidinger-Kendrick also started a supper club out of their home, a step that was meant to serve as a precursor to opening their own restaurant. 

Hidinger-Kendrick says that the outpouring of support they received not only helped with their medical expenses, but also gave Ryan peace of mind that she believes extended his life by at least six months. Ryan passed on January 9, 2014 at age 36, one year and 19 days after his diagnosis. Out of the tragedy, Giving Kitchen was born, on a mission to give that same kind of community support to others in the industry who find themselves in crisis.

Services offered by Giving Kitchen 

Giving Kitchen offers support to food service workers – categorized as anyone working in restaurants, catering, concessions, food trucks, cafeterias, bars, and taprooms – in two core ways. The first is through financial assistance, provided based on need and a set of qualifying criteria that include undergoing an unexpected illness or injury, the death of an immediate family member, or a housing disaster, like flooding, fire, or mold damage. Those who qualify receive financial assistance in the form of rent, mortgage, and/or utilities, paid directly to the service provider. In 2021, 76% of Giving Kitchen recipients said the financial assistance helped prevent an eviction. The average payout is around $1,800. 

“It’s about keeping the water going and the lights on in their times of need,” says Hidinger-Kendrick. “The cost of living is taken into consideration, and that $1,800 can typically help those we serve for about two to three months of time.”

Giving Kitchen calls its other core program the “stability network”, a hub of mental health, wellness, and social service resources. These include resources for counseling, substance abuse, physical health and wellness, financial health, and employment, housing, and family services.

“Giving Kitchen acts as a liaison – it’s a warm referral connection to community resources,” says Hidinger-Kendrick. “If you come to Giving Kitchen and say, ‘Hey, I need access to a mental health counselor and help with finding a new apartment because my apartment building caught fire.’, we could say, ‘Hey, we've got these five referrals that we can share with you for housing assistance, and we have a partnership with Metropolitan Counseling Services, so let me connect you to a case manager there.” 

Based out of Atlanta, Giving Kitchen’s foundation of resources is largely rooted in the southeast region. But a recent partnership with Unite Us, a technology company that connects people to health and social care services, has allowed the nonprofit to provide assistance to people nationwide. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from Idaho, New York, California, or Texas – if you’re a food service worker, Giving Kitchen can connect you [to resources],” says Hidinger-Kendrick.

How to apply

Food service workers can apply for financial assistance for up to six months after a crisis occurs. Candidates are required to fill out an online form with basic contact information and details about the hardship they’re facing, as well as verify place of employment by providing a pay stub. Forms get sent directly to Giving Kitchen’s case management team to review. Bilingual case managers are on staff to help non-English speakers, and Giving Kitchen also has a partnership with an interpretation service. 

“The time a client comes to Giving Kitchen to the time they receive a financial assistance award is about two weeks,” says Hidinger-Kendrick.

Food service workers seeking referrals through Giving Kitchen’s stability network have two options. The first is to use the online library of resources, which enables people to search by category (i.e. “mental health”, “substance abuse”, “dental/vision”, etc.) and do their own research. There’s also an option to connect directly with a case manager to request a personalized referral.

“If it's something you feel that you need more one-on-one attention with, that's when that intake process would come into play,” says Hidinger-Kendrick. “Then you’d be able to schedule some time with an actual human being over the phone to talk through it all.”

The process involves filling out the same intake form that you’d use to request financial assistance. Both applications are free and relatively quick to complete. The goal is to provide barrier-free support, says Hidinger-Kendrick.

“It’s easy. No one should be frightened,” says Hidinger-Kendrick. “Asking for help is OK, and we have the financial resources to give.”

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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