2019 Humanitarian of the Year The Giving KitchenSarah Maiellano
April 30, 2019
This award is given to an individual or organization working in the realm of food who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.
In 2012, chef Ryan Hidinger and his wife Jen were hitting their stride. Ryan was leading an impressive career cooking in top Atlanta restaurants, including Bacchanalia, Floataway Café, and Muss & Turner’s. And together, the young couple ran Staplehouse—an incredibly popular supper club.
Then, their world changed—Ryan was diagnosed with terminal gallbladder cancer. The Atlanta restaurant community banded together in the hopes of raising $25,000 to help cover Ryan’s medical costs. When they raised $300,000, the Hidingers and their friends knew something big was on the horizon.
That big idea was the Giving Kitchen, an organization that provides emergency assistance to food service workers.
“In a lot of ways, we’re an anti-homelessness group,” says Bryan Schroeder, the Giving Kitchen’s executive director. Food service workers can apply for crisis grants from the Giving Kitchen to cover their living expenses in the event of illness, injury, death, or a natural disaster. The average grant is $1,800 and covers rent, electric, and gas bills for three months.
Now about five years old, the Giving Kitchen has distributed $2.4 million through 1,500 grants, which have helped 3,500 people (half of all grantees have children at home). Workers may apply for grants in person, on the phone, or online—in English or Spanish (immigration status is not a factor).
The organization's Stability Network is another resource for workers. “The restaurant industry is like working in a different world,” says Schroeder, who grew up working in his family’s restaurant. “The hours, the effort, who you spend time with, it’s insulated. The social fabric that binds the rest of the world together is [often] not available to people who work in foodservice.
“We created a referral network [of] community resources for affordable housing, homelessness, food, therapists, counselors, medical specialists, and, one time, a dog walker,” Schroeder says. Many of these services are free or discounted.
Before Ryan passed away, he saw the beginning stages of another dream of his and Jen’s: their supper club becoming a restaurant. The Giving Kitchen now operates Staplehouse as a neighborhood restaurant, with the profits benefiting the organization. In 2016, Staplehouse was a James Beard Award nominee and its chef Ryan Smith is a nominee this year.
The Giving Kitchen now has ten employees on staff, including social workers. According to Schroeder, the future of the organization involves deepening its level of service to the people of Georgia and eventually expanding its reach. “We believe there should be Giving Kitchen services in every city,” he says. “We’ll continue to improve our processes, so that when the time comes, the best version of the Giving Kitchen is ready for the national stage.”
In the meantime, though, Schroeder hopes that restaurants will follow in the Giving Kitchen’s footsteps. He encourages business owners to take small steps to provide stability resources to their employees, such as identifying hunger relief organizations and grief counselors in their communities.
As the Giving Kitchen grows, he believes that the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award is going to make a real difference. “There’s someone who won’t be on the street tomorrow because of this award,” he says. “It’s a moment where [the Beard Foundation] will be changing lives.”
Learn more about the 2019 James Beard Awards.
Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.