I've always been unsettlingly tempted by free food. Pained by the thought of anything going to waste, the promise of leftover pizza abandoned in a common space beckons to me like a siren. Suddenly, I'm a sailor ready to risk it all.
I've come to learn that this is one of the few true perks of 9-to-5 office life: There is often random food languishing on a counter or in a conference room, sometimes announced in a listserv or a Slack channel of scavenging-minded peers. In prosperous times, offices might have had free-for-all "Bagel Fridays" or other motivating alternatives. Dull meetings at least offered pizza or sandwiches as a lure, and birthdays meant Costco sheet cakes and other celebratory spreads. The best case scenario was finding the leftovers: When you didn't actually have to attend a meeting or party, yet fortuitously stumbled upon the odd box of doughnuts anyway. Many meals of mine, especially in broke times, have been sourced this way, and jobs in the service industry have also provided a bounty of free, misfit foods—extras or staff meals—in my experience.
In the pre-pandemic days of working from an office, I saved cake, pizzas, and sandwiches from their trash can fate—at the time, blissfully ignorant of the biohazards beneath other people's nail beds and the fact that 15 percent of men reportedly don't wash their hands post-bathroom at all. Now, though, our eyes have all been opened to those horrors, as we don masks and tote around hand sanitizer, and whether this minor office grift of squirreling away cast-off food will make it to the other side of the pandemic remains to be seen. If it doesn't, it will be missed, by me at the very least.
Across the country—and with COVID-19 rates increasing—various states have reopened their economies, and in many of them, office attendance is resuming. The consensus, from the many articles on the subject, is that when offices reopen widely, they'll be very different. When it comes to food, that could mean pre-packaged meals instead of busy cafeterias, an end to communal coffee pots, and fewer group lunch outings. Office snacks and corporate pantries could get the axe, said Forbes, as could the practice of congregating by the drinks machine.
While some of these changes are welcome, like the potential end to the open office, what of all this left-behind food? Will we have large in-person lunch meetings, much less eat in them? When the pizza has been picked at by strangers' hands, not knowing when they were last washed, will it still be left for scavengers, or will it go straight to the trash? As architect Marc Margulies, whose firm is helping offices adapt to social distancing, told the Boston Globe in May, office culture's new normal likely means kissing those spoils goodbye: "That big deli platter is a thing of the past," Margulies said. "As much as we might love it, that’s not going to happen again for a long time."
What becomes of this random food isn't high on anyone's list of priorities, nor should it be, but in the long con of 40-hour-a-week office culture, the lure of free food is a simple joy. It's true that a free bagel on Friday doesn't actually offset a struggle of a week, no matter how much extra cream cheese we add—and perhaps that workplace funding could be allotted in "better" ways—but we all tell ourselves little lies to keep going. I know one thing for sure: The bagel is not as good if I buy it on Friday myself.