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.
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.
There have been many theories floated to explain why companies provide free food. Some observers claim it's a cynical ploy to keep workers on the premises for longer hours. Others argue it's about helping the company look sexy, which can work to its advantage in recruiting and retaining talent. Still others say rich companies are just being generous with their money and that, in turn, makes their workers happier and more productive. It's possible all of these are motivations.
Google has claimed it's all about sparking collaboration. Laszlo Bock, who served as Google's vice president for "People Operations," wrote in his book that Google's entire food distribution system was strategically designed to promote fruitful interactions between workers. The idea is that, when workers randomly bump into each other while getting food in common spaces, it provides opportunities for bonding and the exchange of ideas. This, they believe, is fodder for innovation.
While there was a study supporting the idea that free food might increase the amount of time employees spend in the office, the theory that it increases innovation is based on scant empirical evidence. In fact, a similar theory lay behind the movement for open offices — and mounting evidence suggests that idea has turned out to be a disaster. It's little wonder why Google's competitors at Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft rejected the policy of abundant free food (and they all seem to be doing just fine).
If companies want to find ways for workers to socialize or exchange ideas, regular lunches or dinners together can surely provide that opportunity. But there's no coherent reason why unlimited candy and chips in the break room is necessary to accomplish that. In fact, evidence suggests that junk food negatively affects cognitive performance, which might ultimately hinder idea generation.
Moreover, as basic economic theory and ample evidence shows, making junk food artificially cheaper and easily accessible increases consumption. Many of us lack willpower and self-control in the face of tempting carbs, sugar, and fat. By providing us with a cornucopia of crap, companies are simply making it harder for us to be healthy.
A recent study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the average working adult consumed nearly 1,300 calories per week from food and drinks obtained at work. Most of these calories, their analysis suggests, were "high in empty calories, sodium, and refined grains and low in whole grains and fruit," which goes against clear dietary guidelines for healthy living. They also note that the vast majority of this junk employers gave to their workers for free. They advise that companies make greater efforts to improve the quality of food if they offer it at work.
A few years ago, Google itself came to a similar conclusion after employees complained they were gaining weight after joining the company. To Google's credit, it partnered with behavioral economists at Yale University to devise ways to better promote healthy habits among workers. One of their solutions was simply hiding snacks in opaque bins, which they found significantly reduced calorie consumption.
Yet, there's an even simpler, more effective solution: Stop providing free junk food. It's not even really "free," when you consider that the company could instead just pay workers better. Free food, after all, is a form of in-kind compensation. It costs the company money. And by spending this money on junk food, companies aren't only denying us the freedom to choose how to spend it, they're also encouraging us to make bad health decisions.
This policy is also unfair. If you have two employees who each earn the same salary, the one that consumes more free food will be effectively getting paid more. Free snacks are, in effect, a redistribution of wealth from the health conscious to the gluttonous. Why should someone's appetite help determine their earnings? It doesn't make any sense.
If companies really believe that free food attracts talent better than money, or sparks collaboration, or whatever pet theory justifies the practice, a better system is one that preserves prices. It would be a system where workers would be given some sort of allowance — maybe even a credit card — earmarked for food purchases, but these credits would be redeemable for cash after some period of time. Some colleges have a similar system. As a mechanism to promote healthy living, this system should discount fruits and veggies and place an extra cost on junk food, which, after all, could end up increasing the company's health insurance bills. It's a fairer system that preserves the amenity of "free" food while also helping to get workers to internalize the cost of what they're consuming. If workers want to indulge, they can, but if they decide to abstain, they are rewarded for not gorging themselves on the company dime.
Economists are fond of saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, the same is certainly true for snacks.
This story originally appeared as Why employers should stop giving away snacks on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.