Program introduces trauma-informed care to culinary industry

Episcopal Community Services kitchen, healthy communities, Health Care Foundation, HCF

I want you to take a journey with me… close your eyes and think of a commercial kitchen, like the kitchen in your favorite restaurant. With your eyes closed tell me what you hear… what you smell… what it feels like.

Is it loud? Do you hear the voices, clanging of pots and pans, the rhythm of a knife prepping for a meal… The smells, are they rich and pungent; cool, clean and fresh; spicy, bitter and overpowering? Is it hot, possibly even humid and a bit heavy feeling? Is the energy of the kitchen invigorating or overwhelming?

Now imagine you are one of the millions of Americans who has experienced trauma in your life. Trauma, a situation or event that either caused or threatened to cause significant physical or emotional damage, can alter the lens through which you experience the world. Trauma can result in an ongoing desire to fight or flee. It can cause heightened responses to anything startling or arousing.

Now go back to the commercial kitchen you imagined. How does that change your reaction to the noise, smells and overall feeling of a busy kitchen during service rush?

Creating kitchens that are aware of trauma and how it impacts their staff is the first step to changing the trajectory of an industry.

While a commercial kitchen will always be loud, odorous, and fast-paced, knowing the impact of trauma can shift the lens and potentially change the upward trend in restaurant turnover. This, in turn, could benefit the one in four restaurant operators who report difficulty in filling back-of-the-house positions (National Restaurant Association, 2016). The culinary industry is notorious for its relatively transient nature; staff move from kitchen to kitchen without longevity or commitment to wherever they find themselves. With this transient nature comes the blessing of being an industry ripe for a second chance; people aren’t turned away because of their pasts — pasts that are often wrought with risky behaviors, substance abuse and/or incarceration.

These rich pasts have resulted in traumatic experiences for many, which may also lead to the emotionally numbing effects of risk-taking behaviors (like abusing drugs and alcohol). Add the crazy pace and shifts of restaurant kitchens, and the atmosphere is one that often feeds those bad habits rather than providing stability and calm. Creating kitchens that are aware of trauma and how it impacts their staff is the first step to changing the trajectory of an industry.

As a part of Episcopal Community Services’ Culinary Cornerstones Training Program, we are developing industry-specific, trauma-informed training to help kitchens across the Greater Kansas City area create safer work environments where individuals can be successful.

The training program — which will also be discussed as a webinar later this fall — is being developed over the next month, with edits and updates as needed.

To ensure that our training program is as comprehensive as possible, we’ve approached the development phase by looking and listening not only to the restaurant industry, but also to the larger mental health community. While our team is observing restaurants across the city, we are also folding in some of the great trauma-informed care practices already happening around the city and state, and tailoring those practices to the culinary industry.

Our staff will pilot the curriculum in our own kitchen first and then with ARAMARK out at The K and Arrowhead, targeting a spring debut. Our partners across the industry recognize the struggles they have in maintaining qualified and dependable staff. We all hope that, through this program, we can improve the situations for individuals and the industry.

Trauma-informed care has been discussed in the social work field for some time, but in the food service world, this is a new concept. We’re excited to see what happens.


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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at jsykes@hcfgkc.org.

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