I would imagine that Family Meal looks about the same in most kitchens. For our kitchen, on any given shift, we would be eating a misfit mix of leftovers from events: stuffed mushrooms, baked beans, chicken piccata, bread pudding – anything that was en route to the dish pit had one last chance to be someone’s dinner.
Family Meal can be one of the few moments of peace and solidarity shared between staff.
A calm before the storm. For someone struggling with an eating disorder, it can be an extremely isolating time of day.
Around 29 million members of the American population will be affected by an eating disorder at some point in their lives.
The foodservice industry is home to 11.9 million employees, all made up of dedicated chefs, servers, dishwashers, and hosts. Who, despite the different demands of their individual jobs, work together to achieve a common goal: feeding copious amounts of patrons.
It wasn’t until I had walked a mile or two in their non-slip shoes that it even occurred to me that eating disorders could be prevalent, in one form or another, in kitchens.
Kitchens are fast-paced, high-stress environments that subject the employees in them to unsociable, erratic hours, and back-breaking work.
Oftentimes the employees that work in them do not pass through unscathed.
The skeleton-crew shifts, angry patrons and physical toll can lead to anxiety and depression in restaurant staff.
These disorders typically go untreated due to foodservice workers not having access to healthcare.
Most end up developing some sort of coping mechanism, if not multiple, to deal with their surroundings.
For some, it’s alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, or even a caffeine dependency. For others, it may develop as an eating disorder.
Is there an employee that shows up for their shift, moving through the Family Meal line and piles their plate high, binge eating their one guaranteed meal for the day? As some bus their dishes and head out to the back dock for a smoke break before the rush starts, is there one left behind who breaks away to purge? Or was there someone missing from the table altogether, still on their station prepping a menu item and effectively skipping a meal unnoticed?
These are all examples of the three most common eating disorders: anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.
I was the chef that stayed on their station avoiding meal times. At first, this was only something I did due to my increasing workload after being promoted to a lead cook position. Eventually, even when my prep list for the day was short, I would find an excuse to avoid meal times.
Preparing, planning, and partaking in meals all became odious to me.
I began dissociating from the food that passed through my line.
I would only see meaningless molecules where most would see a delicious meal, no more appealing to me than an Excel spreadsheet. I was filled with an apathetic regard for food in the place where my appetite had been. My hours became longer, leaving little time for personal improvement like finding time for a workout, apart from putting stock away a few times a week.
To offset this, I started trying different fad diets that I thought I could manage: fasting, paleo, gluten free, the list goes on.
I would follow a very restrictive diet and when those very specific foods weren’t available, I would skip eating altogether.
This led to me putting my body through brutal 12 plus+ hour shifts, without the fuel it needed to perform the way I was demanding. I began offsetting my days spent in hunger, with my evenings binging meals in private. At the height of my own personal struggle, I wasn’t conscious of the harm I was doing.
I hadn’t considered it would be classified an eating disorder. I thought I was unable to handle the demands of my job while balancing a life outside of the kitchen. As a young chef I didn’t want to risk appearing weak to my peers or superiors so I didn’t speak up.
The old saying goes, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” so, I doubled down on my dedication to my craft, hoping I’d find a rhythm along the way.
I never once considered that the low pay, exploitation, and impossible demands I was facing were the culprit.
I thought that I was doing what was needed to be “healthy.”
Eating disorders are rarely unaccompanied and are often paired with an addiction, anxiety, or depression.
Modern studies show that genetics and environment can cause an individual to develop an eating disorder. Someone could be born with a genetic predisposition to develop an eating disorder and a negative environment can be the cause that triggers it.
Personality can play a large role in the likelihood of developing an eating disorder in one’s life. Common personality traits that are linked with eating disorders are impulsivity, shyness, nervousness, and perfectionism.
Someone who is considered a perfectionist would likely be an asset as a chef, having high standards for themselves and their coworkers, demanding uniformity and the best for every plate. This trait, when pushed to extremes or exploited by a workplace, can come with a price for the individual that they are not ready to pay.
Can I get a “yes, chef”?
These coping mechanisms can develop out of a need to survive, but can end up having deadly consequences.
Eating disorders are a very serious and oftentimes fatal disease. They have one of the highest mortality rates of mental illnesses and claim a life every 52 minutes.
Allison Lowe, a licensed professional counselor discussed what a treatment plan typically looks like for an individual who is struggling to overcome an eating disorder.
She said it is recommended that the patient work closely with a team made up of a mental health professional, a registered dietician, their primary care doctor, and a support system of friends and family to develop a care plan specific to their needs and maintain it.
For a restaurant employee seeking treatment this may seem impossible.
With working odd, unsociable hours an employee may find it difficult to access a support system made of their friends and family.
Only 1 out of 10 individuals who are diagnosed are able to receive treatment for an eating disorder.
Most treatments, whether inpatient or outpatient, cost thousands of dollars. Healthcare may not be available to people working part time, without immigration documents, or without funds to meet co-pays and deductibles
It cannot be stressed enough how great the need for accessible and affordable healthcare is for the kitchens in our country.
Eating disorders are just one of the many health issues that can affect restaurant employees, whose capital is confined to their physical body and the labor they are able to distribute from it.
Food service employees who do not have access to healthcare are one accident or illness away from losing their ability to work, and, effectively, their wellbeing.
While access to healthcare is paramount in treating disordered eating, there are other steps to take to ensure your healing process.
Communicating to your leadership and coworkers that your recovery needs such as maintaining set mealtimes, access to personal food storage, avoiding environmental triggers all take precedence before the demands of the workplace are some ways to advocate for your healing in a food service environment.
It may even be in your best interest to step away from the industry altogether.
There is an overall “cauterize your cut on the flat top” grit that is woven into the fabric of the kitchens, that is the root cause of employee exploitation that comes at the cost of the individual’s best interest, time and again.
The food service industry as a whole is in the weeds.
Workers have put the very best they have to offer on the plate to be consumed – their youth, their health, their wellbeing, precious time spent away from loved ones – only to be given back the leftovers.
It is time to 86 what is no longer serving us and ring in a new future.
It can start with taking small steps towards organizing in your workplace: like advocating for expanded access to healthcare, destigmatizing seeking help, and demanding more humane working conditions all could lead to the radically improved livelihoods of foodservice workers across the country.