Access Denied: the limits of well-meaning Tech & Food
The start of a conversation about SES and its role in Food Service and Technology
I was a cook at Google when their free-food-at-work program was getting recognition. My eyes opened to something when the Exec Chef asked us to keep to-go containers for the Googlers behind the counter. The reason was to reduce the number of disposables used. It was also because Google employees were walking out the door with armfuls of containers to take food home. The Exec Chef said that they can have what they want when they are eating here, but the food we make here is not supposed to be taken home to feed their families. In the first week of this new protocol, I heard another cook get screamed at with the phrase, "I'm a Googler! I get whatever the [pick a four-letter F-word] I want!"
Working in restaurants, you get to make more imaginative foods when the price point goes up. So who gets to enjoy brunch at the SF top 100 restaurants I worked at? Usually, I'd see well-to-do Millenials with tech money. Sometimes my kitchens would donate food and leftovers to shelters and organizations, though it wasn't always at the rate that could make a real impact. And let's face it, even if we could these well-meaning organizations aren't staffed for donation pickup. Often it's volunteers that make the rounds for donation pick-ups.
Technology can be an equalizer. It can make access to services easier for people that can't leave the house or their job to stand in line at a government agency. In 2020 we were able to utilize tech to have groceries and food delivered to reduce exposure to COVID out in the world. Granted, that placed greater risk on the gig workers. Tech doesn't always help the people who need the most help. Tech really only helps "little guys" as low as the middle class. Not necessarily the real disenfranchised or the full representation of the working class.
Technology, like an app, is usually designed for the latest and coolest phones and computers. You know the ones, they're typically owned by other people working in tech. The average time between new phones that some companies assume is a new phone every other year. When really, a lot of the world population has a phone (if they have one at all) that is a model from five years ago. So who are we really making our services for? Sounds a bit like other people in the Tech Industry to me.
And of course, there is the reputation for restaurants that have higher prices to have better ingredients and food. Only people of a higher income tax bracket or that save for a once-in-a-lifetime meal out ever really get to eat that food. Should good food really be that difficult to come by? What about the farm-to-table places that have mission statements on their websites about community and being a gathering place? When they maintain their higher prices, it seems clear to me what caste of the community they expect to settle around them.
So how do we get these two industries, that can make a difference, to actually make a difference? There are a lot of economic questions to address here. We can't ignore that restaurants had a high failure rate even in the Pre-Covid world. I'm not sure what that looks like now. The profits are slim despite the prices they charge. Of course, Tech companies have their overhead to deal with too. So in terms of the cost of their products and demographics of the customers, I really can't speak to that. A business has to keep its doors open after all. I think the way forward is with the availability of jobs.
When I was looking for work in a new city, every Chef and owner I would meet would look at me and ask where I went to culinary school before even looking at my resume. The truth is that I never went to culinary school. I learned by doing and had already been a lead line cook and kitchen manager at that time. This is the same fear we boot camp grads have when looking for work too. I know I wasn't the only one in my class that was still afraid that a lack of a Computer Science degree would keep me from finding a job.
I think these industries need to be open to the idea that their employees can come from less privileged backgrounds. When it comes down to it, the proof of being able to work these jobs is in what we can make and how well we can talk about the choices and decisions we've made. At least in entry-level positions, we should not have to prove to have an advanced degree. Startups and bigger companies alike should partner with boot camps to create quick internships opportunities, even if it's a week or two of building components. Kitchens and restaurants should be ready to teach entry-level positions and skills too.