Why Employers Should Stop Giving Away Snacks

Pacific Standard editor Ben Rowen, growing unhealthier by the nibble.

Pacific Standard editor Ben Rowen, growing unhealthier by the nibble. 

In 1999, a new start-up called Google hired its 53rd employee. This employee was different than their previous hires. He didn’t code. He didn’t have business savvy. In fact, his biggest career highlight up to that point had been working for the Grateful Dead. But what Employee 53 could do was cook, and cook well.

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After winning a competitive cooking contest with the company, Charlie Ayers became the company’s chef. He would eventually go on to make a fortune helping Google feed its employees. Since then, Google’s policy of free food has been mimicked by competitors like Uber and Facebook. It’s been a frequent subject in the press. It’s even been a plot point in a major Hollywood movie.

Google wasn’t the first company to give its employees free food, but its all-you-can-eat gourmet buffet and unlimited free snacks and beverages throughout the day brought the policy to a new level of opulence.

The policy of providing food in house had some logic for companies swimming in cash and headquartered in secluded suburban campuses in Silicon Valley. At the very least, it meant that employees wouldn’t have to travel far to eat. And for a while, the policy was viewed by outsiders as innocuous—even helpful because it helped limit traffic during lunch hour.

That’s all starting to change. For one, technology firms’ free-food policy has come under attack by politicians, who believe that it has deleterious effects on local eateries. In San Francisco, lawmakers are considering banning the practice. In Mountain View, officials are preventing Facebook from opening an in-house cafeteria at its new campus.

But beyond concerns over the restaurant economy, there are other reasons companies should consider ending the practice of free food, especially when it comes to unwholesome snacks that make us fat and unhealthy. To sum up the anti-snacking arguments: It’s a policy that not only expands employees’ waistlines—it also creates ethical quandaries within the company.

Likely because they’re much cheaper than full meals, snacks have become the food amenity of choice for a growing number of companies following the trend of free food at work. According to annual surveys by the Society for Human Resource Management, over the last five years, the number of firms providing free snacks has increased by 12 percentage points. Now about a third of American companies offer them to their employees.