When the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order went into effect on March 17, tens of thousands of tech employees were sent home, and all their free, three-meals-a-day cafeterias were immediately shuttered as well. In the subsequent days, it was revealed that Facebook’s cafeteria-deprived 45,000 Bay Area employees basically crashed DoorDash — and that the company and its ilk have absolutely enormous piles of produce, dairy, and grains stockpiled all the time.
So, what happened to all that food?
In Facebook’s case, some of the company’s employees stepped up to give it all away by the end of last week. In the process, they realized the truly epic size of Facebook’s larder, learning that the company routinely stores about $300,00 worth of food.
I would like to know what else is in Facebook's reserves? https://t.co/xD2U767SqS— Tony Webster (@webster) March 23, 2020
This giveaway happened the same week that Facebook very publicly dipped into its emergency reserve of 720,000 masks (a stash the company was sitting on for California fire season, Zuckerberg wrote in a post). But since the food donation was a spur-of-the-moment effort, it didn’t garner the headlines the mask giveaway did. With the approval of upper management, Facebook’s cafeteria staff and employees across various departments worked around the clock to send its bounty to the Bay Area (and beyond) during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine—all the while the company’s execs soaked up the “likes” and headlines for the mask donation.
If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon of Bay Area tech company cafeterias, they’re a mixed bag of pride and scorn for locals and employees alike. Engineers have been known to take company cafeterias into account as they shop for jobs; Apple, for example, is known to be legendary for its food, as is Samsung. Most companies provide employees with free meals all day long, an amenity that has invited criticism: tech cafeterias have been charged with having negative effect on worker engagement with their communities and the livelihoods of local cafes and restaurants, while the stark contrast between well-fed Silicon Valley workers and the area’s tens of thousands of homeless families and individuals has created community tension.
Interestingly, Apple and Samsung don’t provide free meals to employees. Instead they are “subsidized,” meaning heavily discounted, which discourages employees from throwing away food they don’t like. But Airbnb, Dropbox, Google, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Square, Twitter, Uber, and yes, Facebook, all give free food to their hundreds of thousands of Bay Area employees every day.
Or rather, gave. In non-pandemic times, food that didn’t get used in Facebook’s cafeterias was doled out as “farm bags” to a variety of local organizations (like Menlo Park senior centers). This was something employees started doing over a year ago to create a solution to food waste, a Facebook spokesperson told Eater SF, and these bags—which typically contained pantry staples like chicken, vegetables and other goods—were trucked to the charitable orgs that Facebook workers have targeted.
When Bay Area residents—Facebook employees included—started getting sent home from schools and workplaces, the Facebook volunteers who coordinated food donations began to hear from their recipients about a rise in COVID-19-related food instability, and ramped up the company’s already extant donation efforts. So over the course of two and a half days last week, as Facebook spokesperson Chloe Meyere tells Eater SF, the company’s employees pulled all-nighters for a one-time push to give it all away to organizations including Meals on Wheels, Food Runners SF, St. Anthony’s food kitchen, and a number of other non-profits.
Most Bay Area “Big Tech” companies have employee donation programs: Apple, for example, has gotten press for its charity donation matching, as well as the millions the company gave in early March to help fight the coronavirus. But Facebook’s COVID-19 food stability project is driven not only by cash but by its foodservice staff and employees; as Facebook’s VP of Global Facilities and Real Estate John Tenanes told Eater via email, it has dispersed “more than $650,000 in food and donations” since the crisis began.
Few people are going to argue that Facebook as a company has always been a good corporate citizen, a thoughtful neighbor, or a force for social equality. But if the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the resources that local tech companies have at their disposal, then the actions of Facebook’s workers set an example for the tech industry. That said, their efforts also pose a provocative question: how different would things be if Facebook’s Bay Area workforce would focus its attention on the community it occupies all the time, not just during a crisis?
Update: March 27: 2:30 p.m. This article was updated to include clarifications and additional context from Facebook spokesperson Chloe Meyere.