Free Food For Tech Employees Goes To Waste

Tales from the clean-up crew for tech company overflow.

Dreamforce is an annual conference hosted by the software company Salesforce. It’s a massive event that tends to subsume downtown San Francisco — blocking off city streets, clogging traffic, booking up Airbnbs, filling up every over-the-top nightclub in the vicinity. This year, Salesforce even commandeered a cruise ship, docked in the San Francisco Bay, to act as a floating hotel.

That accommodating attitude extends to food offered to conference-goers. This year, the spread was so abundant that a nonprofit group called Food Runners San Francisco was able to rescue 4,000 boxed lunches that would otherwise have gone to waste. “That’s only the 4,000 that I know about,” Nancy Hahn, director of operations at Food Runners, told BuzzFeed News. “The year before, it was probably similar,” said Hahn. “Those are the ones that we see; it could be more.”

Excess like that from tech companies is not hard to find. Airbnb, for example, left 1,855 pounds of extra food on the table last year at its annual employee convention called One Airbnb.

Airbnb’s numbers are more precise because the company made a rare move by paying Food Shift, a nonprofit focused on reducing hunger, to manage the recovery. Food Shift’s tally from just one breakfast and lunch during the four-day conference totaled 761 pounds of excess food, including 138 pounds of polenta, 78 pounds of scrambled tofu, 153 pounds of yogurt, 15 pounds of bacon, and nine pounds of Mascarpone cheese. At another recent pickup, from a 140-person tech-company lunch, Hahn found 75 leftover burritos. “How do the amounts get to be so large?” Hahn asked.

Boom times beget decadent behavior, and the only thing flowing more freely than startup funding right now is free food. During the height of the dotcom bubble, companies like Google began offering meals as a perk to maximize productivity from employees who worked long hours. But like other aspects of Silicon Valley culture — hoodies, pingpong tables, sleeping at the office — what was once utilitarian has mutated into parody. “The opulence and the abundance and the excess [of food] is kind of synonymous to what was going on in Rome before the crash,” Dana Frasz, the founder of Food Shift, told BuzzFeed News.

Indeed, if you are employed by a tech company in the Bay Area right now, or invited to their events, the supply of subsidized food within hand’s reach is almost endless. Silicon Valley campuses are now dotted with kitschy food trucks, Indian restaurants, and raw food pop-ups as an alternative to already-bountiful cafeteria buffets. Office micro-kitchens are brimming with free snacks and organic produce, cater waiters offer up artfully arranged hors d’oeuvres at hosted happy hours, fireside chats come with gourmet grazing options, and boxed lunches have been known to contain a fancy cut of meat. Elaborate menus, posted online, change daily. Last Friday’s lunch at Facebook’s Full Circle cafe, for example, was Hunger Games-themed, including dishes with names like Cinna’s Creamy Rosemary Orange Chicken and Prim’s Baked Grape Leaf and Basil Wrapped Goat Cheese. Startups like Zesty, ZeroCater, and Cater2me — middleman between offices and local restaurants and food vendors — have now begun to pop up, most backed by the same venture capital funding that propped up demand in the first place. (Some BuzzFeed offices use ZeroCater as a vendor.) “There’s a lot of pressure to never be caught without,” said Hahn. “No one can be one chip short. Ever.” Caterers have told her, “‘Oh my gosh, you should hear what we hear if we’re one portion short.’”

And all that food — spurred by the fear that anything less than abundance will hurt employee hiring and retention — leads to a lot of food waste.

But this is not another Google bus debacle, during which multibillion dollar tech corporations and their luxury shuttle buses quickly became a symbol of the industry’s indifference toward its neighbors. Silicon Valley has, for the most part, been conscientious about the community when it comes to surplus prepared food. Oftentimes that means signing up for free food-collection services, or partnering with pre-existing charities. According to Hahn, tech companies are the source of roughly 50% of the excess food picked up by Food Runners San Francisco, which now receives enough donations to deliver around 17 to 18 tons of food a week. And at Peninsula Food Runners, which is located in the startup-saturated South Bay, the percentage of surplus from tech companies is around 70%. Founder Maria Yap says hers is the only organization collecting prepared food in the area, so weekly she’s moving around 35,000 pounds of food. “GoDaddy, LinkedIn, a lot of these places have more than one cafeteria — and of course I deal with corporate caterers.”

But while nonprofits told BuzzFeed News they are grateful for all the surplus food, the deluge can be overwhelming. The burden of redistributing corporate spillover falls on agencies that offer their services for free and depend on volunteers. “I’ve heard so many people in the food recovery realm say it’s too much, when you have to send not just one car but three cars to a tech company to pick up what they have leftover in one day,” Frasz told BuzzFeed News. Nonprofits and church groups are overextended.

For-profit entities are entitled to their extravagances, of course. And food waste is a national issue, not unique to the tech industry. A 2012 report from the National Resources Defense Council found that 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten. But surplus sounds callous from companies who claim to have a better vision for how the world should operate. It’s particularly troubling considering the number of neighbors who go hungry. In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, which encompasses Menlo Park, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale — and the headquarters of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo — one in four individuals is at risk for hunger. The national average is one in six people. In one of the wealthiest areas of the country that considers itself an incubator for the future, one in three kids are at risk for hunger.

To address the issue, in 2014, Second Harvest Food Bank launched “Stand up for kids,” a campaign co-chaired by Sheryl Sandberg. Second Harvest is the largest food bank in the region, serving 250,000 people a month, but it doesn’t work with prepared food. The agency is mainly seeking funding, and Silicon Valley has been eager to oblige. Tami Cardenas, vice president of development and marketing, said they have also been “trying to appeal to young tech workers,” including a Thanksgiving-themed spoof of Drake’s video for “Hotline Bling.”

Bon Appetit Management Company, which runs cafeterias for Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many more, seems headed in the right direction. The company hired a waste specialist who doubled the amount of food recovered in her first year, and Bon Appetit recently announced ambitious company-wide goals for food recovery by 2018. So far this year, its corporate accounts in the Bay Area donated 58,965 pounds of food.

Some new pastry additions to the 9th floor for those that have been missing muffin Fridays

When it comes to surplus food, the pickup and delivery process is about as intricate as Facebook’s daily menus. From big tech companies with an in-house kitchen, Food Runners San Francisco is seeing 12 to 20 trays on a daily basis, said Hahn. “That’s like food for 75 to 100 people. Sometimes the shelters get full. Some shelters don’t take catered food at all. Some of the really large soup kitchens, they’re trying to serve 2,000,” so “40 of this and 50 of that” doesn’t always fit their needs.

“I know this is gonna sound really crazy,” said Hahn, but one of the challenges early on were the lids for foil catering trays. “We would go for pickup and the lids would be nowhere in sight.” The food providers would explain that they took away the lids because “the clients don’t like to see them.”

Peninsula Food Runners’s criteria for free pickups is whether the food would be able to feed 10 people. “They don’t think who is actually eating this,” said Yap. “Come on, you guys, let’s be green about this: Would you want a driver to come out just to get your mayonnaise and ketchup?”

Ironically, the issues plaguing food recovery are the type of problems currently in vogue with startup founders. There’s a two-sided marketplace (donors on one side, shelters and food banks on the other). It requires real-time responsiveness (donations come in at peak hours and prepared food must be delivered in a timely manner). The process is riddled with inefficiencies (mismatch between the size of a donation and the needs of a shelter). The labor force is crowdsourced and fractured (on-demand apps require cheap couriers whereas nonprofits rely on volunteers).

“I make a joke sometimes, ‘Well, there oughta be an app for that!’” said Hahn. “What if when you walked in the office in the morning you [pressed a button] that said ‘Yes, I’m having lunch’ or ‘No, I’m not having lunch today.’” Perhaps, said Hahn, companies were using waste prevention measures. “Sometimes, based on the amounts of food I see, it doesn’t seem like they’re doing that."

Yap built an application called Chow Match to make donations easier. “The programmer happens to be my husband. He was just so tired of me talking about all this inefficiency,” she said. Yap said with more resources she could educate corporations concerned about the liability for donating prepared foods or whether or not there is a tax write-off. (Taxes are a concern with this perk. Last year, the IRS put “employer-provider meals” on its list of top priorities.)

Airbnb tasking Food Shift to manage those extra pounds of mascarpone and bacon is a great example of a successful partnership, Frasz said. For one, based on the feedback loop, waste was reduced by 191 pounds the next day. And secondly, Airbnb was willing to pay for the service.

In June, Food Shift released an in-depth report about waste in Santa Clara county, which includes Cupertino, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. “It exposes the hidden complexities around food recovery,” said Frasz. “I don’t think people realize how under-resourced these people are and how $300 would actually make a big deal.” It’s frustrating, she said, when “the tech company isn’t even willing to pay for the containers.”

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