22 Organisations Standing Up for Food Workers’ Mental Health

2021-10-08, 11:41am Op-Ed

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Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg

Working in the food system not only is physically difficult but can also be mentally and emotionally taxing. Low wages, long working hours, sexual harassment, stress and anxiety can all take their toll. And at the same time, these hurdles make it more difficult to access therapy, crisis intervention, support networks, and other helpful resources. Analysis from the U.S. from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that suicide rates among chefs, cooks, farmers, and other agricultural workers are higher than the general population, but mental health challenges can seem daunting to speak openly about.

Working in the food chain. Photo courtesy of Rohan G, Unsplash via Food Tank

"Seeking help for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, addiction, not only is it a financial impossibility for people who often don’t even have access to basic healthcare — let alone mental healthcare — it’s stigmatized," writes Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food & Wine and founder of Chefs with Issues, a food service mental health network. "We’re stopping each other from seeking help, and that’s got to change."

With World Mental Health Day this Sunday, October 10, we are featuring 22 incredible organizations in the United States, United Kingdom, and worldwide that are destigmatizing mental health and helping those in need access help: Agrisafe, United States; A Sip of Paradise, United States; The Burnt Chef Project, United Kingdom; CHOW, United States; #Fairkitchens, International; Focus On Health, United States; The Giving Kitchen, United States; Healing Voices, United States; Healthy Hospo, United Kingdom; Healthy Pour, United States; I Got Your Back, United States; I Heard You, United States; Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, United States; MN Rural Mental Health, United States; National Association for Rural Mental Health, United States; Not 9 to 5, Canada; Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association, Canada; Puente, United States; Restaurant After Hours, United States; Rural Aid, Australia; Serving Those Serving, United States; and Southern Smoke, United States.

Jobs along the food chain come with their own unique set of pressures that tax the mental health of workers. Farmers face extreme weather, farm consolidation, and economic insecurity, while many food service workers garner low wages for long, pressurized shifts, often without access to health care.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control finds that agricultural workers are more likely to die by suicide, compared to other industry groups. It also finds that workers all along the food chain experience elevated rates of suicide compared to the total study population. Studies of fishers, farmers and hospitality workers show that the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptions to the food chain only exacerbated these stressors. “We should be reaching out to farmers and chefs. They’re inundated with pressure, anguish, and fear now on a daily basis,” Katherine Miller, Founder of Table 81, says.

Recognizing the challenges food system workers face, many organizations are stepping up to provide mental health services to those in need. World Mental Health Day offers an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and promote efforts supporting mental health. In honor of this day, Food Tank is highlighting 22 programs helping food chain workers—from migrant workers and farm managers to front and back of house restaurant teams—connect with mental health services

1. Agrisafe, United States

Believing in their ability to improve the health and safety of farmers and ranchers, rural nurses founded Agrisafe in 2003. The organization works around the country to support a network of trained agricultural health and safety professionals that ensure access to preventative services for farm families and the agricultural community. The AgriSafe Network also launched the AgriStress Response Network, which aims to destigmatize mental health support. The AgriStress Response Network operates nationally to ensure the wide dissemination of resources and trainings that reduce farmer and rancher stress.

2. A Sip of Paradise, United States

Founded in East Atlanta, Georgia by Keyatta Mincey-Parker, A Sip of Paradise is a community garden that aims to provide a healthy, safe space where bartenders can recharge their minds and selves. During the pandemic, the garden has helped bartenders to alleviate anxiety, stress, and loneliness by providing them with a communal space to go to grow their own vegetables and herbs. Members can work individual and collective plots, meditate, and build community with one another.

3. The Burnt Chef Project, United Kingdom

Launched in May 2019, UK-based The Burnt Chef Project exists to eradicate mental health stigma within the hospitality industry. A survey of 1,273 hospitality professionals conducted by the organization shows that 84 percent of respondents had experienced mental health issues in their career. And 46 percent say they would not feel comfortable sharing their concerns with colleagues. The organization accepts donations and sells branded merchandise to raise awareness of and destigmatize mental health issues. Proceeds from the merchandise fund their mental health training programs in addition to wellbeing resources for the hospitality industry. These resources include a 24/7 text support line, online and in-person training, and access to human resources support.

4. CHOW, United States

In 2018, pie maker John Hinman and food-and-travel writer Alexandra Palmerton created Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness (CHOW), a safe space where people can share their stories of pain, recovery, and improved mental health. CHOW creates opportunities for restaurant staff to connect on a deeper level and share their grief and pain, as well as their successes and joys. According to their website, the group facilitates uplifting gatherings, so that no one else is lost to suicide, addiction, or other mental health struggles. The organization has provided over 700 hours of individual clinical therapy as well as more than 65 hours of group support.

5. #Fairkitchens, International

#Fairkitchens is a global movement started in 2018 by Unilever Food Solutions and a group of chefs and partners to address wellbeing in the foodservice and hospitality industries. The #Fairkitchens Code is the starting point of the movement and emphasizes the importance of creating a healthy kitchen culture based on communication, passion, support, and teamwork. The movement facilitates conversations between more than 10,000 Fair Kitchen operators around the world, which focus on the successes and challenges involved in creating healthy working environments. It also works to provide the resources, tools, and training to improve communication and support team members in crisis.

6. Focus On Health, United States

Founded during the COVID-19 pandemic by bartenders Laura Paylor and Alex Jump, Focus On Health is a company that advocates for the health and wellness of workers in the food and beverage sector. The company creates free virtual content and resources that support the organization’s five pillars of wellness: physical, social, environmental, financial, and mental wellness. Additionally, Focus On Health hosts programs with therapists, promotes mindful drinking, and encourages yoga, reiki and meditation.

7. The Giving Kitchen, United States

Based in Atlanta, Giving Kitchen is a hospitality support group that grew from the love and financial support that followed the cancer diagnosis of Chef Ryan Hidinger in 2012. Now, the organization provides emergency financial support and a network of community resources to thousands of food workers. Their Mind Matters program focuses on all things mental health, and exists to educate, advocate, inspire, and uplift food service workers. In May 2021, during Mental Health Awareness month, they hosted a series of live seminars with mental health professionals and industry leaders.

8. Healing Voices, United States

Beginning in May 2021, Justice for Migrant Women partnered with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA), the Eva Longoria Foundation (ELF), and Latinx Therapy to pilot the Healing Voices project, a mental health initiative for farm workers. The project aims to support the holistic healing of some of the 2.5 to 3 million U.S. farmworkers who have experienced decades of traumatizing work conditions, economic insecurity, and vulnerability, all made worse by COVID-19. Free virtual support groups work to ensure ease of access and physical safety, as they bring farm workers together to heal, build agency, and mobilize. The pilot programs are based in Florida and California.

9. Healthy Hospo, United Kingdom

UK-based nonprofit Healthy Hospo was born out of a mental health breakdown that almost cost founder Tim Etherington-Judge his life in 2016. Healthy Hospo develops bespoke training and solutions for the specific needs of hospitality professionals. The organization is committed to providing information, advice, and training on all aspects of physical and mental health for everyone who works in hospitality. Last year, Healthy Hospo launched a digital training platform app with lessons on topics including sleep, nutrition, mental health, exercise, social connection, financial health, and business management, with new lessons added regularly.

10. Healthy Pour, United States

Clinician Laura Louise Green founded Healthy Pour in 2019. Healthy Pour is an organizational consultancy that seeks to improve the mental health and wellbeing of individuals, communities, and organizations within and around the hospitality industry. The organization provides training and education resources for leadership and teams. Through individual and group coaching, education, and consulting, Healthy Pour aims to empower those in the hospitality industry to create psychologically safe cultures and spaces where they can thrive.

11. I Got Your Back, United States

Sacramento Chef and program Co-founder, Patrick Mulvaney says I Got Your Back (IGYB) is a promise to work together to support peers and destigmatize mental health and related issues. According to Mulaney, a rash of suicides and overdoses in the restaurant industry hit Sacramento hard in late 2018 and early 2019, spurring him to start a program that aims to turn grief and sadness into courage and optimism. The project is a peer-to-peer counseling program that trains select workers to identify signs of mental distress while on the floor and empowers them to check in with their coworkers in a supportive way. Thirteen restaurants participate in the pilot program, and the organization plans to scale IGYB training through the creation of a road map so others can start their own programs.

12. I Heard You, United States

I Heard You is a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, Texas that aims to connect hospitality industry professionals to compassionate support and services. Partnering with therapists and counseling groups around the U.S., I Heard You works to connect current food and beverage employees with appropriate therapy options, whether they are in Texas or other parts of the country. The organization also hosts a weekly, national group discussion online about mental health, wellness, and recovery.

13. Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, United States

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA) is a nonprofit that aims to restore Maine’s fisheries and sustain its fishing communities for future generations. A 2019 grant enabled the organization to begin the work of promoting mental health awareness and wellbeing for commercial fishing communities. In partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), MCFA established a blog series, Fishermen Wellness, that offers information on topics including grief and depression. It also provides resources for fishers seeking further support. MCFA received, and continues to seek out, funding to offer financial assistance to those seeking mental health and substance abuse support services.

14. MN Rural Mental Health, United States

With more than 30 years of rural counseling experience, Ted Matthews has served as the director of MN Rural Mental Health through five natural disasters. Recognizing the unique pressures that farmers face, the Department of Agriculture provides subsidized counseling for farmers in Minnesota. Matthews works in a variety of areas from crisis intervention to family communication and resource utilization. In 2020, he counseled 20 farm families, 15 couples, 40 individuals and eight farm business management instructors and their families.

15. National Association for Rural Mental Health, United States

The National Association for Rural Mental Health (NARMH) is a national membership organization dedicated to education and advocacy around rural mental health. The organization provides a forum to identify and discuss rural mental health problems and solutions. Annual conferences, regional workshops, and published information all help NARMH work toward its goal. The linked voices of NARMH’s membership advocate for access, availability, and acceptability of behavioral health and substance abuse support services at federal, county, and state levels.

16. Not 9 to 5, Canada

Founded in Toronto in 2018, Not 9 to 5 is a nonprofit organization that uses practical education and meaningful community-building to destigmatize mental health and addiction. Not 9 to 5 connects the hospitality workforce to mental wellness resources. The organization believes that the hospitality industry must work through its unique and extreme challenges and learn to treat everyone with dignity and respect. To that end, Not 9 to 5 works to shift workplace culture and increase psychological safety within the hospitality industry. In addition to its courses, blog, and resources, Not 9 to 5 established an international coalition of hospitality leaders and organizations committed to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people in the industry.

17. Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association, Canada

Comprised of more than 3,000 members, the Prince Edward Island Fishermen’s Association (PEIFA) is the representative organization for all core fishers in the Province of Prince Edward Island. Since 2019, the association has partnered with the provincial government in the Fisher Assistance Program (FAP). Through FAP, all PEIFA members, their crews, and their families are eligible for free, confidential, professional counseling sessions.

18. Puente, United States

Founded in 1998, Puente is a community resource center serving the San Mateo County South Coast communities of Pescadero, La Honda, Loma Mar, and San Gregorio in California. Through their Behavioral Health and Recovery Services team, Puente provides a constellation of mental health services to farm workers, from individual counseling to regular group discussions. The organization conducts farm visits and facilitates discussions about strategies to manage depression, stress, trauma, and anxiety. Puente also offers comprehensive mental health services to individuals, couples, families, and children by appointment.

19. Restaurant After Hours, United States

Founded by hospitality industry veteran Zia Sheikh, Restaurant After Hours provides mental health support for the hospitality industry. The organization exists to help promote discussions of mental health, erase the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and provide hospitality employees with the support they need. The organization conducts mental health presentations in hospitality workplaces, and their website offers a variety of mental health and crisis support resources.  The organization is currently conducting a fundraising push that will allow it to resume its Virtual Support Group program in the Fall of 2021.

20. Rural Aid, Australia

Tracy and Charles Alder founded Rural Aid in 2015 to supply struggling farmers with fodder. Today the organization offers a range of services to rural communities including financial assistance, water, and counseling during times of natural disaster. In September 2021, the counseling program expanded from five to 15 counselors offering both over-the-phone and on-farm services. Rural Aid’s counselors must live in the communities in which they work for at least three years so they can develop long-term relationships with individuals, communities, and non-governmental organizations.

21. Serving Those Serving, United States

Founded in 2017, the Minnesota-based nonprofit Serving Those Serving (STS) is an organization dedicated to the social, mental, and physical wellness of the service industry. The organization has partnered with the Sand Creek Group to deliver an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides a 24/7 bilingual helpline as well as in-person counseling sessions to employees. The EAP program served 1,300 employees in 2020, the program’s pilot year. STS also sponsors the In The Weeds Foundation, which provides scholarships that offer mental health therapy and other wellness resources to members of the hospitality workforce.

22. Southern Smoke, United States

Southern Smoke was founded by Chris Shepherd in 2015 as a fundraiser to combat multiple sclerosis. Since then, the emergency relief organization has partnered with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston to provide free mental healthcare to anyone in the food and beverage industry—and their children—in the state of Texas. They hope to grow this program to reach every state, and they are already supporting programs in Chicago and Austin. The group also offers emergency grants to anyone who works in the food industry. To date, the organization has distributed more than US$9 million.

(Danielle Nierenberg is President, Food Tank and can be reached at danielle@foodtank.com)