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Chain Restaurants Hurt the Economy, Pollute, And Pay Poverty Wages. Eat Local Instead.

| July 5, 2016

eat local fast food restaurants darden chains

Not too healthy. (Steve Crane)

Americans now spend more on dining out than on groceries. But while we increasingly seek out organic and fair trade goods at the store, we usually don’t think about the social and environmental impacts of dining out.


We should. The last time you ate at a restaurant, you probably weren’t aware that your wait staff might be earning poverty-level wages — or that transporting your food may have contributed unnecessarily to climate change.

Chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Chili’s, and the Cheesecake Factory have the power to change this system. But despite their “family-friendly” image, they’re perpetuating it.

Olive Garden, Yard House, LongHorn Steakhouse, and other brands owned by parent company Darden — which franchises over 1,500 storefronts — tend to purchase large quantities of food from massive, centralized producers. Consequently, the food travels quite a distance to reach the restaurant kitchens.

Since 70 percent of America’s fruit and nuts and 55 percent of its vegetables come from California, for example, the almonds that top a salad at the Olive Garden in Times Square may have traveled nearly 3,000 miles to end up on that plate.

By purchasing food that’s traveled across the continent, restaurants aren’t just failing to serve the freshest available food. They’re also increasing the food’s environmental and climate impact, since hauling it across such vast distances generates large quantities of carbon emissions.

In fact, the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. That’s one of the many reasons our food system is a top contributor to climate change.

other-wordsAveraging over $7 billion in annual sales over the last five years, Darden is in a prime position to help build up more sustainable local economies. By purchasing food from local family farms — which often have higher standards for animal welfare, organic methods, and preserving the environment — Darden restaurants could both decrease their carbon footprint and help bolster local economies.

But improving its supply is only half the battle. Darden also owes its workers a raise — a big one.

The food service jobs Darden creates simply aren’t economically sustainable. The federal minimum wage for tipped work is $2.13 and hasn’t been raised in 25 years.

Nationally, the median annual income for tipped workers is under $15,000, which puts them below what a person making the $7.25 federal minimum wage for hourly work would earn. Only seven states have raised the minimum wage for tipped workers to the full federal minimum.

These poverty wages also perpetuate the gender pay gap. The Restaurant Opportunities Center United calculates that 66 percent of tipped workers are women, and 40 percent are mothers. That means a single mother with one child who earns the average tipped worker salary is paid below the federal poverty line.

To add insult to injury, chain stores and restaurants like those owned by Darden aim to keep their staff at part-time, dodging their obligation to provide employees with essential benefits such as sick leave, parental leave, and health insurance. Some 60 percent of Darden’s 150,000 employees are part-time.

It’s time for Darden restaurants and other big chains to strengthen local economies by keeping food purchases local and ending worker exploitation. If you eat at chain restaurants, let them know you care about supporting local economies and workers.

Better yet, look for locally owned restaurants that source local and support raising the minimum wage for all workers.

anna meyerAnna Meyer is the Food Campaigns Fellow at Green America, where she regularly blogs about the problems with industrial agriculture, GMOs, and other food and sustainability issues. Anna has a Masters in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from the University for Peace and a Masters in International Affairs from American University, where her research focused on U.S. farm policy.

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22 Responses for “Chain Restaurants Hurt the Economy, Pollute, And Pay Poverty Wages. Eat Local Instead.”

  1. Jim says:

    I think you are ignorant about local business. Do your research. I think you will find out that the pay across the board is the same. Your management for the most part is higher paid at the “chain” restaraunts. And the chain restaraunt offers medical benefits. I would say working at a restaraunt shouldn’t be a career unless it is in management. Your article has too many broad facts. There is no direct fact comparisons. If a meal travels 3000 miles to hit the plate, then it employed a lot of people to get it that far. And waiters pay has always been low. Most receive cash and that’s the perk to being a waiter.

  2. Laura says:

    As owner of Wild Rabbit Cafe, our motto is “Eat Local, Eat Fresh”. We have been serving the Flagler community less than a year and are one of only two restaurants in Flagler recognized by the national Slow Food movement as supporting local farmers with our purchasing decisions. Our customers and staff aren’t just a number in a database at corporate headquarters but our neighbors, the person next to us in the church pew, or our child’s teacher. We firmly believe , as your article reiterates, that our community votes with their dollar every day. Thank you, Flagler Live, for bringing these facts to light. We look forward to another great day to live- and work- in Flagler county.

  3. Gotta do what we gotta do says:

    Unfortunately it is far too often that local restaurants are deemed to not be as clean and their prices are much higher than chain food eateries. We don’t have as many mom and pop eateries as in other cities so we don’t have a lot of choices here in Flagler County. I keep hearing that the City of Palm Coast is so unfriendly that no one wants to come here to do business and that is why it has taken so long to get the retailers in here that are here. Flagler County is known to be the most corrupt county in the state of Florida–thank our elected officials, county administrator, and city managers for that reputation they earned.

  4. Marlee says:

    Eat local? I wonder why there are no vegetarian restaurants in Palm Coast.

  5. footballen says:

    ACTUALLY my daughter works at both McDonald’s and the Golden Lion and she makes far more at McDonald’s. That is a fact not speculation. What she is paid at the Golden Lion should be criminal!!!!

  6. Robin says:

    I would be happy to eat at local restaurants rather than chains, but most of the ones I’ve tried in Flagler and Ormond are unfortunately mediocre, at best. I agree that restaurants should pay their employees a living wage and provide benefits like health insurance. That’s a big problem with “Obamacare”, which lets employers get away with not providing health insurance to part-time workers; and it is certainly not just Darden or other restaurants that do that. However, my daughter worked at Red Lobster for several years, and she made more in tips than I made working full time in the legal field in Daytona Beach, so there’s that. The wages in this area are ridiculously low, and that needs to change.
    By the way, I’ve never had a salad at Olive Garden that had almonds on it.

  7. tulip says:

    The article makes mention how far our food actually travels before it reaches the restaurant. The groceries we buy in the supermarket are shipped to supermarkets. from all over the United States PLUS foreign countries. Even foods in Farmer’s markets aren’t all local either.

    It does seem like people eat out a lot, as parking lots always seem to be full even as we acquire more and more restaurants. Sure seems to be a lot of people that can pay the prices and yet say they can’t afford much.

  8. Pasta Pete says:

    I cook my own food………..Don’t trust cooks and waiters spitting in my food or worse !!!

  9. Sherry says:

    OH Good God! Now President Obama is to blame for this as well??? Pleeezzzz, employers have done everything they can to pay as little as possible and provide zero benefits for well over 50 years!

    For those that care at all about what they put in their bodies. . . while supporting local communities and farmers. . . there is really delicious, very reasonably priced vegetarian food and even some organic produce at the Wild Rabbit Cafe in the gym at 250 Old King’s Road just South of SR 100. The cafe is run by a wonderful young couple who are a great addition to our community. Let’s show some real community spirit by giving them some great support! Here is the link: http://www.wildrabbitcafe.com/

    Other excellent local restaurants certainly include the Flagler Fish Company and fish shop, on the town square in Flagler Beach. . . where wonderfully “fresh” fish is cooked to perfection. . . most often grilled. . . rather than the fried frozen stuff.

    The bottom line is that stuffing your face as cheaply as you can will cost you much more in hospital bills later on, and your quality of life will most definitely suffer. Take care of your body and it will take care of you!

  10. michael murphy says:

    Jobs like McDonalds are for High School Kids or College Kids or even Retires making a little extra money.Anybody getting a Job there to try to support a Family or Buy a House well all I can say is Shame on you.

  11. snapperhead says:

    I’ve worked for a chain restaurant and a mom and pop restaurant. The chain restaurant had stringent food safety, cleanliness and training programs. The mom and pop had basically none.Watch a few episodes of Restaurant Impossible or Kitchen Nightmares and wonder why I eat at chain restaurants. There’s no standards for food safety, cleanliness or training at most “local” owned restaurants. And I was paid more at the chain restaurant than at the mom and pop. Sounds as though the author only has book knowledge about the industry instead of real world experience.

  12. Mark says:

    The mom and pops pay their workers more? Right. Their food is fresher and healthier? Right. Dream on. If pay is increased who do you think gets to pay for that pay increase, the owner? I think not. They would not be in business very long if it wasn’t passed to the customer. Soon, robots will be taking over all these jobs, what then? Global warming? Give me a break. How much did flying Air Force One from Andrews to NC increase global warming. Global warming isn’t one of my worries when I go out to eat and it never will be. My contribution to global warming is about non existent. Get a real life.

  13. A Little Common Sense Please says:

    Ms. Meyers is living in a dream world to expect to feed the United States without having to transport food products from one part of this nation to another. I am one of these producers of agricultural products and can tell you the reason we MUST ship produce. The shipping of produce is done because it is seasonal pretty much where ever you grow in these United states. During the summer months in Florida there are too many hours of sun light, for C-3 plants{the more succulent tender greener vegetables}. Its OK for C-4 plants like field corn. Florida is hot,wet and there are too many insects to control during our summer months. During the summer months we depend on the north for our vegetables and the north depends on the south during their winter when we can still grow and they are frozen. The Idea that locally grown foods could support our population year round is dangerous, there would be localized famines due to seasonal weather and insect conditions.
    As far as Ms. Meyers idea that California ships most of our produce to the east coast is absurd. The cost of transporting the massive amounts of food from the west coast to us here Florida would at least double the price of produce. The only time this happens is when there have been freezes such as in 1982-83 when the southern US got wiped out, to prevent localized famine Texas and California shipped here. Texas then sent a lot of produce our way and some {more than usual produce} was shipped from California. Usually the more expensive or exotic produce items are what we get from California. The concept of centralized produce shipping is the norm in agricultural products just as it is in many other industries from postal to car parts shipments. The reason for this “Hub” warehousing is it saves dollars on fuel costs over all and that directly proportional to the carbon emissions. Less fuel burned means less carbon emissions.Try to get the job of distributing the nations food supply or any other product throughout the nation in hundreds of small vehicles that when emissions were combined, would drastically increase the amount of carbon emissions poured into our environment. Our current system of distribution is not perfect, but it is the most practical an least environmentally detrimental means we have of insuring that the American people have the access to a well balanced diet year round. A normal semi truck’s fuel mileage is around 6.5 miles per gallon. To get a 46,000 lbs. load of produce 953 miles to New York, NY from Jacksonville, Florida it takes 146.62 gallons of diesel fuel plus about 45 gallons diesel fuel to run the refrigeration unit on the trailer for a total of 191.62 gallons total of diesel burned that will impact our environment from carbon emissions. Now, to move the same amount of product 953 miles using smaller delivery type delivery vehicles with refrigeration might get 13 miles per gallon{Best Case scenario}. You would need 12 trucks to haul 4000 lbs. each @ 13 mpg 953 miles and you would burn 879.72 gallons of gas or diesel. Burning 879.72 gallons fuel or gas compared to 191.62 gallons of diesel fuel by a semi to do the same job is 4.59 times as much carbon containing fuel burned. Now which way impacts the environment the least?

  14. Sara Lockhart says:

    I LOVE the Wild Rabbit Cafe. If you haven’t tried it, please do so.

  15. Sara Lockhart says:

    Regardless of your “food politics”!

  16. Geezer says:

    Eat local–dine at home.
    Even supermarket food and baked goods are suspect.
    Wash meats and vegetables thoroughly.
    Brown-bag your lunches.

    – Tasty
    – Healthy
    – Trustworthy
    – Economical

    I worked in the food and beverage industry.
    Because of everything I’ve witnessed, I rarely if ever
    eat food prepared by strangers.

    Nothing beats homemade.

  17. Fredrick says:

    Mr. Murphy – you are exactly right. Those jobs are not meant to be a “career”.

  18. Karen says:

    I would love to be able to eat locally, HOWEVER, restaurants in this area are only good for a few months and then quality slips horrendously. Basically, the restaurants are mediocre to say the least.

  19. DaveT says:

    One thing I like about Flagler Beach is that there ARE NO chain restaurants. All local.

  20. ray brilli says:

    great article- I eat local -Carrabas -rude arrogant and miserable employees because of wages mentioned in this article

  21. Diane says:

    I say bring every chain food restaurant into town ! They are mostly for the travelers on 95 who stop to eat spend their money and leave. The food choices are poor at best in Palm Coast and Flagler Beach .
    As far as local restaurants if the food was better and the restaurants clean they would do a better business .
    Mr. Murphy is correct being a waiter has never been or should never be a permanent job career . Is this what the schools are graduating from school kids that want to aspire to be waitresses and waiters ?

  22. Vinny Boom Bots says:

    Very few local eateries follow Federal or even State health code guidelines, most cant afford to so in essence the patron gets shortchanged all around, like it or not it’s business, chain eateries have serious reputations at stake so like it or not they have to maintain much higher standard all around that’s mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Also most small business eateries hire family and friends so any valid complaint against a specific employee will most definitely be ignored & if the complainant returns their food more then likely will be tampered with. As for the climate change issue, refrigerated foodstuffs transported by both train and truck account for less then 18% of America’s combined commodities shipped from point A to point B anywhere in North America so you can stop that lie…..NEXT?

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