home Food, Internet, North America, Politics Let Them Eat Organic Polenta: Food Wastage in Silicon Valley

Let Them Eat Organic Polenta: Food Wastage in Silicon Valley

California’s Silicon Valley has become almost a parody of itself — and definitely a pending referendum on late-stage capitalism. As in the tech bubble of the late 1990s, the entire Bay Area is caught up in a giddy sea of ones and zeros, companies constantly working to outcompete each other on an increasingly baroque series of products, from home weed delivery to apps that just send the message ‘yo’ to friends of the user, with a growing focus on creating problems in order to generate technological solutions that are not in fact needed. As tech workers creep up the Peninsula to displace San Francisco residents in established and beloved districts like the Mission, companies from Palo Alto to SoMa are struggling not just to compete for market share, but for employees, providing a growing list of perks to lure tech workers from one firm to another — and it’s common for talented programmers, developers, and other personnel to bounce between employers repeatedly, chasing the unicorn.

That unicorn comes with a lot of high costs for the Bay, and one of them is hidden but everpresent: Food waste. In a nation where 40 percent of food is never eaten while over 15 million children experience hunger annually, the sheer profligacy of Silicon Valley’s biggest names is nothing short of shocking, even though some attempt to work with ‘reclamation’ companies that work to salvage food with the goal of reducing waste. Notably, one in three children around the Bay goes hungry — that’s twice the national average.

The amount of food wasted in Silicon Valley is perhaps the most eloquent symbol of the tech industry’s carelessness when it comes to the world and the people around it — and troublingly, it’s becoming a bigger problem every year.

Google’s Mountain View campus is perhaps the most famous for its lavish workplace, the Versailles of the Valley, with 30 something cafeterias workers can choose from at lunch or other meals, ball pits, slides, bikes to get around campus, giant dinosaur statues covered in pink flamingos, sleep pods, on-site haircuts and massage, the infamous Google buses, free on-site daycare, lavish parental leave by US standards, and many, many more benefits. It’s not alone in offering a growing list of amenities once considered perks, but now assumed to be standard. To be competitive, workplaces can’t just offer high salaries with good benefits. They also have to appeal to new hires with foosball tables, on-side massage therapists, and, of course, food.

Lots of it.

Originally, the trend of providing food in major companies was entirely utilitarian, with companies like Google reasoning that by feeding their employees, they could encourage them to work longer hours. Instead of having to go home or off-campus to eat, engineers and other personnel could grab something to eat at lunch or dinner and continue working on into the night. Google is famous for its extremely long hours, with many Googlers noting that the company’s much-vaunted 80/20 rule (80 percent of time spent on Google tasks, 20 percent on personal projects, some of which are later picked up by the tech company) actually just means laboring 50 or more hours a week on Google’s workload, and then adding to those hours if they want to take advantage of the Google campus’ huge assortment of tools to work on their own projects.

Thus, feeding employees was a rational business model, and as the tech industry grew, so too did the trend of feeding staff. It also began to transition from snack bars or fridges around the office to organized cafeterias to gourmet catering — Dropbox, for example, is famous for its lunch hour, and invitations to lunch are a hotly sought commodity. On any given day, the lineup might include sushi, an array of fresh smoothies, dim sum, and numerous hot entrees including dishes like costly cuts of lamb and elaborate vegan and vegetarian dishes — and that’s just one dining room. With large numbers of workers comes an increasing risk of food waste, as companies don’t want to run out, and they also want to account for guests who may be meeting with personnel or visiting during job interviews. The problem can be even worse with conferences and sponsored events, where companies use food as a status symbol, just as their doomed counterparts in the late 1990s did.

Facebook recently offered a Hunger Games-themed menu.

Where does all that food go?

In the beginning, the short answer was ‘the garbage.’ As the push for corporate social responsibility started to become unavoidable, especially in California, where numerous people feel burdened with the drive of performative apologetic guilt — we certainly feel bad about those Ellis Act evictions, so we suppose we ought to do something for the community — companies turned to composting and ‘creative reuse,’ like reintegrating components into other meals. Reusing leftovers in new and exciting forms is, after all, the great American tradition, as numerous overstuffed people will tell you in the wake of Thanksgiving, speaking of shocking profligacy and the American dream.
However, in recent years, tech companies have turned to food reclamation as another option, working with companies that specialise in retrieving and rerouting the unwanted waste of the tech industry and other large firms. Whether that food is going to food banks or other sites, it can include ludicrous examples of the industry’s wealth and power — collections after major events don’t consist of things like hundreds of pounds of leftover potatoes and carrot sticks, but mascarpone cheese, fancy polentas, expensive meats, and elaborate desserts. Hungry residents of the Bay can’t afford to be choosy about whose leftovers they eat, but there’s something darkly bitter about the fact that they’re eating the luxury castoffs of the very people who are displacing them and driving the cost of living up in the first place. For those who qualify for food assistance programmes like those associated with reclamation companies, they’re likely eating better than many people experiencing food insecurity across the US, as well as though who live on the margins in the Bay Area, not quite able to support themselves but still making too much, or remaining too proud, to qualify for social assistance.

The decision to donate leftover food, of course, is much better than the alternative, but it’s also emblematic of classwar in the United States, with the wealthy dumping their leavings on the working class and assuming that they’ll be gratefully received, instead of reining in their own excess. As food banks around the country currently buried in useless food donations due to holiday-induced guilt will note, organisations providing food to hungry people don’t need food, they need money. It’s not just that it’s cheaper to negotiate bulk rates by buying directly, but that food banks and similar organisations can purchase nonperishable items to keep in stock, and can stock their facilities according to the needs of their clients, and to past trends — particularly when it comes to serving minority communities, a savvy food bank may try to give people like, say, Syrian refugees, the US cause du jour, a taste of home by stocking traditional foods.

Prepared food is difficult to work with. It’s challenging to transport — especially when many tech companies are too cheap to even bother providing containers — and it’s hard to sort, process, and deliver to customers. Highly perishable donations of this nature may be gourmet meals, but that’s not much help when food banks are inundated in inefficient and eclectic donations and attempting to process them as quickly as possible with limited staff. They in turn may end up with food waste when they can’t rehome prepared foods before they spoil.

Companies do little on their side to prevent waste, instead patting themselves on the back for tossing it magnanimously to the region’s poor. Rather than purchasing excess food, they could, of course, be donating to organisations that feed hungry people, or better yet, they could be engaging directly with the social problems they’re directly contributing to, reducing the number of people in need in the first place. This, however, would require a level of coordination and self-awareness that’s sorely lacking in Silicon Valley, where there are apps that simulate zipping and unzipping your pants while homeless women give birth in bus shelters.