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.
Averaging 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.