The Culinary Industry Needs to Talk About Breastfeeding
Restaurant workplaces are exceptionally challenging for nursing parents, but a new initiative hopes to provide solutions.
After chef Kelsey Barnard Clark gave birth to her first child, she brought her baby to work with her for 18 months. Each day she ran her restaurant Eat KBC while juggling the complex schedule of nursing and pumping milk every couple of hours.
“It’s not just putting your baby on your boob and everything’s fine,” says the Alabama-based restaurant owner. Pumping milk requires parents to hook themselves to a machine, plan for where to store the milk, and consume enough calories and water to support lactation. “It is very challenging in and of itself,” she says, and even more difficult for anyone working “a labor-intensive, physically active job.”
Clark recognizes the exceptional privilege that comes with being a boss. But going through the strenuous experience of nursing while working in an open-layout restaurant made her keenly aware of the unique postpartum difficulties nursing moms in her fast-paced industry face. “You can’t pump in the kitchen while working on a line,” she says.
Though the pandemic spurred long-overdue conversations about the need for industries to better support working parents, much of the dialogue centered around corporate offices. Restaurant settings bring additional logistical difficulties, not to mention physical and emotional challenges. “Often in restaurants, it’s a near-impossible feat to find [safe and private] spaces,” says Amy VanHaren, the founder of pumpspotting, an app-based lactation support platform. Beverly Kim, the chef and co-owner of Chicago restaurant Wherewithall who breastfed her three children while holding restaurant jobs, remembers that when she needed to pump, she attempted to find privacy in a shared office space, where “there’s always this fear, even if it’s just people knocking on the door, trying to open the door,” she recalls. “It just feels uncomfortable.”
Now, pumpspotting is working with Kalamata’s Kitchen, a content platform introducing children to global cultures through food, to reach new and expecting mothers in the underserved culinary industry. As part of the partnership, which was developed with The LEE Initiative, a non-profit advocating for equity in the restaurant industry, Kim’s establishment is one of many committed to encouraging employees to utilize pumpspotting’s resources, which include helping nursing mothers find safe and welcoming spaces in the vicinity to breastfeed and connecting them with lactation experts. In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, Kalamata’s Kitchen will cover the cost for any working mother in the restaurant industry to access a version of the app specially tailored to culinary workers through the end of 2023. Restaurant-reservation platform Resy is also joining the initiative to help raise awareness about the free individual subscriptions across the eateries in its network, and to offer all its restaurants a discount on business subscriptions (which include resources like a workplace milk expression policy and workplace lactation experts) for the first year.
“When it comes to creating a healthy environment for women, the restaurant industry has done an insufficient job,” notes Kalamata’s Kitchen co-owner Derek Wallace, who points out that many new and expecting parents feel they “have to choose between having a family or being in the restaurant industry.” Kim herself recalls feeling badly when she had to take breaks to pump as a new mom. “There’s a lack of empathy or understanding of how hard it really is to manage your [milk] supply,” she says. “We just haven’t created a culture of it being normalized.”
VanHaren, who also worked in restaurants for years before becoming a mother, says a crucial step toward normalization is educating employers about how important it is for lactating parents to take breaks to feed or pump regularly. There are significant health risks to not doing so: “If your milk is coming in and you’re becoming engorged and you’re not able to express that milk in a timely fashion, you run the risk of getting mastitis,” she says, noting that inflammation of the breast tissue can be very painful and can result in infection and fever. The associated stress of not expressing milk can then lead to reduced supply, she adds.
By educating restaurant owners about postpartum needs and providing them with resources to ease the stress of baby-feeding workers, services like pumpspotting can help encourage honest conversations about lactation and build an atmosphere of empowerment and inclusivity that signals alignment with breastfeeding parents. This includes “logistical things like making it possible to step away from the kitchen to nurse or pump while on the job and creating private, comfortable spaces for nursing,” says Resy’s vice president of restaurant marketing Chandler Stroud. Practices like these can help “create a pathway for working parents” to advocate for themselves, adds Kim—and for employers to support their staff. (Edward Lee’s Succotash, Sara Bradley’s Freighthouse, and Renee Erikson’s Sea Creatures Restaurants are a few of the other establishments that have signed on to offer the platform to any staff who needs it.)
“It is for the benefit of communities because we need women to thrive,” adds Kim. “We need babies to thrive.”