No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Q. For years, the kitchen where I work has provided free meals to employees. Now we have a new boss, who has discontinued this policy. Now we’re not even allowed to take leftovers. The new policy creates much hardship and resentment for employees. Some have even continued to take food surreptitiously! Does the employer have to keep giving us food? What steps can we take? 

A. It does seem a bit heartless to make a person work in the midst of food and not let him or her have any. Perhaps it is this sentiment which underlies the Torah’s mandate to allow field workers to eat from the crops they gather in: “When you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes” (Deuteronomy 23:25). But it is clear that this principle has its limits. The end of this same verse states, “But you may not put any into your container,” and the next verse warns not to harvest any standing grain for personal use.

Our legal tradition states that this permission is limited to agricultural workers, specifically those field workers who are first bringing the crops to a state where they are edible and accessible. The Torah imposes a special degree of generosity on the reward from agricultural activity; one explanation for this is that the Divine contribution to productivity in agricultural is so keenly evident. But this commandment does not apply to workers in an industrial kitchen. On the contrary, the relevant part of the mitzvah for you and your colleagues is the warning not to take for yourself from the food belonging to the employer!

Your employer’s directive is certainly understandable. Allowing restaurant workers to eat from the restaurant food, especially in a kosher delicatessen where very expensive food is sold, can be an immense burden on a place of business. And the policy that forbids you to eat leftovers, while unfortunate, is a universal one, which employers feel is necessary to protect themselves from liability as well as from conflicts of interest (people could intentionally waste food so that they may eat it or give it to charity).

The real problem here is not with the prohibition per se, but rather with the fact that in the past the employees were entitled to this benefit. If the custom always was that employees are entitled to meals, then the meals would be considered part of the salary. Taking away this benefit would be permitted only under those circumstances when it would be permissible for the employer to cut your pay. This in turn depends on whether you have a contract or collective bargaining agreement and on local law and custom, as well as on whether adequate advance notice was given.

From the information you provide, it seems that the most equitable solution would be for the employer to allow employees to buy meals at a reduced rate, perhaps even slightly subsidized. This will help solve the problem of what to eat for lunch but will protect the employer from having workers eat him out of house and home, since the charge for food will both reduce consumption and also provide income. Maybe you could suggest this to management.

SOURCES: Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 337:2; 331:1-2; Chavot Yair 224.