The power of giving
Words by Mary Kate McGowan
When the COVID-19 pandemic began inching into everyday life last spring, Janae’ Littlejohn was cruising in the Bahamas. When she returned home to Atlanta, the city was unrecognizable as it began shutting down.
Her rent was due. An eviction hearing was looming.
And she felt sick.
At the time, COVID-19 tests in Georgia were reserved for first responders and essential workers. Littlejohn—who was set to work as a bartender and a hostess at Terrapin Taproom at The Battery Atlanta—was not deemed an essential worker. Because her car was recently totaled, she could not drive through a testing site, on top of not having the money to pay for a test without insurance.
Littlejohn fought COVID-19 at home as the eviction notices piled up. “It was a very, very trying time,” she said. “When I came home, I was sitting down, and I was looking at those eviction papers. I was sick, and I didn’t have any money in my bank account.”
And then, the Atlanta Braves’ baseball season was canceled. Truist Park and The Battery, including Terrapin Taproom, closed. The hope of her “last saving grace” evaporated.
“I was just praying for a miracle,” Littlejohn said.
That miracle came as an e-mail message from her Terrapin Taproom manager who mentioned an organization helping food service workers, specifically if they were having hardships with COVID-19.
That’s how Littlejohn found Giving Kitchen—an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing emergency help to food service workers through financial support and a network of community resources.
Thanks to financial help from Giving Kitchen, Littlejohn could pay rent for that month.
“Hope is a lot of things, especially in the times that we’re living in right now,” said Littlejohn.
A “Light Bulb” Moment
Giving Kitchen was born from a community’s response to another trying time. In 2004, Ryan Hidinger and his wife Jen had moved from Indianapolis to Atlanta and wanted to make their mark in their new city’s vibrant food culture. This manifested in a supper club, which would later grow into the renowned Staplehouse restaurant.
At the end of 2012, Hidinger—then a well-known chef for his work at Bacchanalia, Floataway Café, and Muss & Turner’s—went to the doctor with flu-like symptoms. He was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and given six months to live.
“When you learn of any sort of crisis, it really is devastating,” said Jen Hidinger-Kendrick. “We were a young couple concentrating on building a restaurant. Everything that we were working toward felt like it was crashing down.”
After that diagnosis came a “light bulb” moment. Their community hosted a fundraising event to benefit Hidinger and help support the family. Hidinger and the fundraising efforts both exceeded expectations.
“The doctor said six months [to live]. We ended up having [Ryan] here for 13 months. What was supposed to raise $25,000 to get us through that last year, we ended up raising over $250,000,” said Hidinger-Kendrick. “That was such a ‘light bulb’ moment: the realization that there wasn’t anything that was set up for this community of food service workers in their time of need.”
The Hidingers filled that gap and founded Giving Kitchen in 2013, giving hope to more than 7,300 food service workers in Georgia since then. Of those who have received financial help, 72 percent report that it prevented an eviction, and 66 percent that they didn’t have to skip a meal to pay their bills.
Helping Those Who Serve
The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the restaurant industry and food service workers’ livelihoods. “The pandemic really pushed us forward a little bit faster than we anticipated,” said Hidinger-Kendrick.
Last March, Giving Kitchen saw 20 times more clients asking for help. “We saw more website traffic in the first week of COVID than we did the entire year of 2019.”
In 2020, Giving Kitchen helped 2,500 clients statewide—almost a third of its total clients since opening its doors.
“It was this huge, significant increase in the amount of food service workers who knew about us,” she said. “As you have seen globally, restaurants have shut down. They’ve completely changed business models. They have let go of their staff; they have retired a certain percentage of their staff. They are suffering still.”
Focused on helping a community of those who serve, Giving Kitchen is expanding to Tennessee this year with a goal of reaching five states within five years. By 2026, Giving Kitchen wants to serve upwards of 16,500 food service workers a year.
It’s about more than food and beverages, Hidinger-Kendrick said. “[It’s] about community and sharing and breaking bread around the table, because it’s about human interaction, and we want to be there to help humans.”
To help food service workers, donate to Giving Kitchen at https://thegivingkitchen.org/.