The person who served you lunch today may be going hungry. Surveys of restaurant workers in the Bay Area and New York City show that after spending long days sating the appetites of customers, they return home to empty pantries and struggle to pay for groceries. Nearly one in three restaurant workers suffers from “food insecurity”—meaning they regularly have trouble obtaining adequate nourishment, usually because they can’t afford it.
The study, published by Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY) (in collaboration with Food Chain Workers Alliance and Food First), shows that while the prevalence of food insecurity in the food-service workforce is paradoxical, it is built into the capitalist food chain.
Among the surveyed workers—representing a cross-section of cooks, servers, bussers and other low-wage workers in two cities with thriving dining scenes—workers of color were more likely to be food insecure than their white counterparts. Two in three undocumented workers experienced food insecurity. The problem is especially widespread among tipped workers, like servers. Those jobs are mostly done by women, many of them single mothers raising kids in poverty.
Even restaurants that touted their green credentials—marketing themselves as organic or sustainable—did not seem to pay enough to sustain the basic needs of their workers: “Bay Area restaurant workers who served organic or sustainable ingredients were 22 percent more likely to be food insecure, compared to other Bay Area restaurant workers after controlling for demographic characteristics.”
One server surveyed, ROC-NY member Carolina Portillo, described the class dynamics of an industry built on the extremes of indulgence and deprivation: “It’s sad that when you work in a restaurant, most of the servers are starving.”
Even when they’re not actually starving, food-insecure workers struggle for sustenance. One in five of those surveyed relied on government food assistance. About the same percentage depended on restaurant food, typically because they did not have the time or money to eat homemade meals. What looks like a perk smacks of desperation. In New York, about half of those surveyed said the group meal provided by the restaurant was not nutritious. Most of them also said they “wanted to eat more fruits and vegetables than they presently did.” In other words, their jobs kept them from having the food choices that their patrons freely enjoy on the menu.
Martin Sanchez, a New York City busser and ROC-NY member, explained for the study why he ate on the job: “Even though I work in a restaurant and handle food for a living, it’s a struggle to feed myself and provide for my wife and five children…. at the last place I worked, they would serve us junk: cheap, fried food and sometimes expired food. They never let us eat the kind of food that’s popular with our customers like salmon or quinoa salads.”
Though gourmet bistros illustrate the most striking inequities, material deprivation runs through the metabolism of the entire food system. Across all food labor sectors, including farming, processing, and service, those who work with food have trouble feeding themselves; they experience twice the rate of “very low to marginal” food security, 30 percent, of the overall US workforce.