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Wellness > Mental Health

Working In The Food Service Industry Makes My Climate Anxiety So Much Worse

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Emerson chapter.

I work at a cafe/bakery/restaurant in downtown Boston. Ya, we kind of do it all. Some people treat us like a Starbucks, they come in for their daily dose of high-quality caffeine. Some people grab a pastry to go with, and others come for a whole meal whether it’s breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or something in between. And everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. Which means we get a delivery of newly baked pastries every morning from the nearby commissary and dessert deliveries every night. We brew coffee every hour and a half (because it’s deemed not fresh enough after that long) and new pitchers of iced tea every morning. 

Now, yes, I’m giving you some trade secrets but the telling stops there. In an effort to avoid jeopardizing my job, I’m not going to tell you exactly where I work. Still, it’s a fair assumption to make that this is how lots of cafes probably function, and the food industry in general save some specific details and practices. Now I can’t speak for the back of the house (kitchen staff) about how they handle their food waste at the end of the night, but as for counter staff, we throw away or take home lots and lots of food. All of the pastries we receive in the morning “expire” at the end of the day so we either take them home or toss them. Same goes for the iced tea and soups of the day, and the desserts only stay in the case four or five days before they’re deemed not fit for sale. Basically, you get the point. We throw a lot of stuff away. 

And it’s hard. Throwing away perfectly good loaves of bread and pastries knowing they’re just going to sit on the side of the road then end up in a landfill somewhere. Some nights, when me or one of my coworkers have the energy at the end of a long shift, we pack up all the pastries and leave the box at the closest homeless shelter. Those night we walk home with a lighter conscious. But we forget or get lazy, and it’s hard to feel guilty about wanting to just toss it all in the trash because you’re exhausted and want to get home as fast as possible. According to an article published in The Guardian, Americans waste about a pound of food per person per day and around $160 billion worth of produce annually. Working in the food industry makes me feel like I’m contributing to that number even more than the average person, and that’s enough to make me want to quit. 

And then there’s the anger that comes with watching other people be wasteful all day long. It’s one thing to feel guilty about what you could be doing to be less wasteful and more sustainable, but another to look on helplessly as you watch customers be careless and have to clean up after them and be helpful and polite. Everytime I make an iced latte and scoop ice into a plastic cup, my mood dampens just a bit. Even though we have certified compostable straws like most millennial-friendly cafes today, we still use A TON of single-use plastics.

I see people eat half of their sandwich or drink a few sips of coffee and leave it to be thrown away. I see people take a water cup, use it, throw it away, and ask for another one. And the worst part is, I can’t tell them no. A part of customer service is enabling this kind of wastefulness, even encouraging it in some cases so that the customer doesn’t bear the guilt I feel for their wastefulness. It’s frustrating and depressing. We all have a part in the detriment our planet is facing, and even though I try my best to be as sustainable and environmentally-conscious as I can, it never seems to be enough. I feel this overwhelming sense of hopelessness, and my job exacerbates it to the extreme. 

So, what do I do? How do I handle it? Why don’t I just quit and find another job? That’s a good question. I could, I could quit and seek out a cafe where I could barista that is committed to being as wasteless and sustainable as possible. I could go to hell with the food service industry as a whole and try to get a part-time job somewhere else. But the truth of the matter is, wastefulness is ingrained in every sector of our society whether it’s food service, retail, business or anything else.

And I love my job, I do. I love the management and the people I work with and the pay is pretty dang good for a cafe job. I’ll admit, that part of dealing with the anxiety and stress I feel working there is compartmentalization. To try as hard as I can to not think about the ramifications of the business we conduct there, like many of the customers do. But I’m also doing as much as I can to make it better and ease my conscience like encouraging all my coworkers to bring their own cups and water bottles for their staff drinks throughout their shifts. And rinsing out any container I can instead of throwing things out when I make a mistake. I also make sure customers know they can bring their own containers, and every time I do I relish in it and celebrate that small success.


I am a Writing, Literature, and Publishing senior at Emerson College but I'm originally from Tampa, Florida. I love writing and I hope to eventually be writing for a magazine or an online lifestyle publication. I love music and entertainment writing as well as traveling and baking.
Emerson contributor