A free lunch in Silicon Valley: Health and wealth disparity in our food system

 

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. This household phrase harkens back to the once common practice of offering a free lunch to saloon patrons who purchased at least one drink. These meals supposedly kept bar customers thirsty, and encouraged them to stay awhile. Embedded in the phrase, and its origin, is the idea that one can never get something for nothing. There is always a hidden cost.

Sometimes these costs are less hidden than they are spread out. Food bank patrons, like the 250,000 monthly visitors catered to by Second Harvest Food Bank, depend on donations, grants and grocery store rescue to cover the cost of their meals. The food bank and its 300 distribution partners push out about 66 million pounds of food every year. More than half of the food bank’s customers are seniors and children. Many are families, with multiple sources of income.

Between 2011 and 2016, the median rent in the Bay Area increased by 45 percent, while median income rose by only 14 percent. Skyrocketing costs of living mean that more and more folks have to choose between paying rent and filling the fridge in any given month. For many residents of the Bay, a free lunch is the only type they can afford.

For others, it’s just what they expect.

Silicon Valley is awash in free lunches, from Facebook’s and Google’s world-famous campuses to just about every startup on the block. Jason, a 29-year-old employee at a Palo Alto tech startup, offers that “lunch is not really a question at a lot of companies.” In their struggle to hire and retain the most desirable programmers and software engineers, companies have to stay competitive in every facet. Providing lunch for workers is one such perk. “That’s just sort of like, table stakes, because otherwise some company will have it,” Jason says.

Lunch, snacks, coffee, fruit, and fridges full of La Croix have become standard amenities at tech workplaces. Dinner is less of a given, though some companies do offer it; others setups give employees the opportunity to take leftovers home for dinner.

Evan Smith, a 26-year-old business operations analyst, frequently takes advantage of this option at his company.

“Sometimes I pay no money for food in a single day, which is like… thank you, my lucky stars,” he says.

One speculation about the “cost” of free food at tech companies is that workers feel compelled to put in longer hours. They also have more time to share ideas and collaborate with coworkers, bonding over shared food on the company premises (or a meal bought on the company’s card). According to Jason, “that time is more valuable than the price of the food.” It would seem logical, then, for a company to invest in feeding employees for the gains of higher productivity, more overall hours of work, greater team building, and a positive workplace community. Although, speaking to his own startup, Jason adds: “What’s important to realize is that none of this was, like, thought about hard or calculated by anybody.”

Meanwhile, at another tech office in San Francisco, Smith is already thinking about “Le Normandie,” a sandwich he frequently orders for lunch.

“I’m so excited for next Thursday, or whatever day I’m getting this,” he says. Smith describes a sandwich made with “brie, apple, walnuts, some figs on there, arugula. All the good stuff.”

The purveyor of “Le Normandie” is a company called EAT Club, which identifies itself as “the office lunch benefit that satisfies individuals to power teams.” EAT Club offers a daily menu of options for individual employees to choose from. The lunches are delivered in neat little boxes, pre-heated or chilled depending on the contents — complete with a heating or cooling pad beneath the box — and employees can grab them and go whenever it fits in with their work day. Smith speaks highly of this model, saying: “I prefer to eat out of [the San Francisco] office.” He adds as an afterthought: “And to work in this office.”

At Smith’s company office in Chicago, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Smith attributes this largely to the competitive aspect of tech hiring in the Bay Area. He doesn’t go to the Chicago office often, but when he does it’s always a bit of a rude awakening to have to purchase a lunch, whip out cash for vending machines, and be called “spoiled” by his midwest coworkers.

Does this daily cornucopia lead tech workers to take food, and plenty, for granted? Could that be the cost — a disintegrating level of understanding, from one part of the community to another? Smith describes many days when he and his Silicon Valley coworkers find themselves unimpressed with the lunch offerings. When this happens, he has to remind himself to take a step back, saying: “Remember, you didn’t pay for this. So, maybe let’s just not complain.”

Dana Frasz, the founder and director of an organization called Food Shift, describes Silicon Valley as a place of innovation, abundant resources and brilliant minds.

“I’m really inspired by the food scene in California, and always have been,” Frasz says. Certainly, many individuals and organizations are doing groundbreaking work within California’s food system, she says.

Food Shift is one such organization, addressing issues of hunger, food waste and unemployment. Second Harvest Food Bank, with its focus on fresh food and its “Healthy Food and Beverage Policy,” serves as a model for other food banks all over the country.

Still, there is a long way to go. About 4.9 million Californians do not know where their next meal is coming from, according to the California Association of Food Banks. One in four San Franciscans faces hunger — a staggering number, much higher than the rates of homelessness or poverty in the city. Despite living in an agricultural bread basket, a land of innovation and growth, many people simply have not been able to keep up with areas rapidly rising expenses.

It’s easy to blame the insanely high cost of living in Silicon Valley on the tech industry. Many do. Roz Naylor, an economics professor and director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University, thinks there is some truth to this. She cites not only the big bucks that these companies generate, but also the huge number of tech workers that have been drawn into the area: “They’re very well-educated people, they’re demanding more housing, so you’re putting pressure on the overall system.”

On the other hand, tech companies and startups do employ more folks besides their programmers and executives, and they also pay taxes. As Naylor points out, the tech boom has done some good things for the state’s economy. “Even though we see a localized situation with inequality, California is in a surplus because of the income that’s earned from these companies,” Naylor says.

She does worry about the sense of entitlement that prevails among highly paid tech workers, only exacerbated by the daily cornucopia of office food, and how this affects empathy for those who cannot afford to eat. Naylor firmly believes that the future, “not just of food, but of society, rests on how much compassion we have for each other.”

From the food bank’s perspective, Cat Cvengros — the Vice President of Development & Marketing at Second Harvest Food Bank — expresses gratitude for the level of dedication she sees from corporate and tech partners. “We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without their support,” Cvengros says, adding: “I’m really honored and grateful that we can have complex conversations with our partners about the root causes of why hunger is increasing in our community. … And they step up to help us meet that gap.”

Cvengros experienced food insecurity firsthand growing up. In her work today, she finds that empathy is one of the most important tools in engaging people with the food bank’s mission; sharing stories of the families and individuals who have benefited from the food bank, and who still need the food bank, reaches people more than any statistic. That’s when, she says, “you realize it’s not an issue you’re caring about, it’s a person.”

Dana Frasz of Food Shift believes that the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley can do more to focus on issues of hunger and inequality. It isn’t just about donating or volunteering every now and then — the food assistance and food recovery sectors need innovation, too. “Instead of these apps to get more food delivered to people who are already well fed,” Frasz ponders, “what about an app to get food delivered to someone who works three jobs, and needs food?