Amid growing hunger, Americans turn to fast-food joints — whose workers say they can’t afford to eat

You have Americans on both sides of the drive-thru window hoping they can afford to feed their families

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published August 15, 2023 3:02PM (EDT)

Sign at an abandoned fast food restaurant (Getty Images/dickiedavis123)
Sign at an abandoned fast food restaurant (Getty Images/dickiedavis123)

The lines at fast-food restaurants and food banks have both grown this summer as inflation has caused the price of basic groceries — eggs, butter, beef — to swell while pandemic-era supplemental nutrition benefits expired for millions of Americans. 

Food insecurity experts predicted this period of increased need months ago, referring to it as a "looming hunger cliff." In June, many Americans came face-to-face with it, as the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey reported that 26.5 million Americans reported food insecurity as of June 19, the most thus far in 2023 and the highest number since December 2020. The United States Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP benefits, defines food insecurity as "a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life." 

Across the nation, food banks have reported increased need, which really began to climb in March, the month after emergency allotments — the increased SNAP benefits that were available to families amid the pandemic — were discontinued. According to a statement from Feeding America, nearly two-thirds of responding food banks reported an increase in demand for food assistance. 

"In the latest survey, fielded between April 17 and May 1, around 95% of responding food banks reported seeing demand for food assistance increase or stay the same in March compared to February, with around 65% reporting an increase in the number of people seeking charitable food assistance," it said. "This is the first food bank survey gauging demand since the nationwide end of a critical pandemic-era food benefit." 

This coincides with a second-quarter increase of sales at fast-food and quick service restaurants like McDonald's and Starbucks, as reported by the Washington Post on Monday. According to the publication, sales "increased by an average of 5.75% over the same quarter last year, according to company earnings reports for 43 major restaurant chains." Sit-down and fine-dining chains, meanwhile, only saw an average increase in sales of 2.38%. 

Data shows that demand for fast food remains relatively stable during periods of economic depression, enough so that last year Arby's President Jim Taylor described the burger business as being "recession-proof." During the 2008 recession, the industry publication QSR ran a story that detailed how "quick-serve growth proves recession resistant" as system-wide sales for the Top 500 chain restaurants in the United States rose to an estimated $230.2 billion in 2008, up $7.6 billion over 2007.

That year, McDonald's, the largest U.S. restaurant chain, grew an estimated 4.4% with sales exceeding $30 billion.

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However, in a twist of tragic irony, as food insecurity now spikes and Americans are again turning to the drive-thru for relatively affordable meals — many of the workers who are cooking and serving that food are in the midst of major strikes because they allege that their current wages don't cover cost of living. 

In July, hundreds of fast-food workers from Los Angeles restaurants like McDonalds and Dominos hit the picket lines to demand better conditions in their industry where, as KCRW reported, "they face some of the lowest wages, toughest working conditions, and highest levels of homelessness of any workers in LA." Similar strikes have taken place in New York City, Las Vegas and Chicago, while data from Bloomberg Law shows that 323,000 workers from a variety of industries, ranging from fast-food to acting, have already gone on strike this year, making it the busiest year for strikes since 2000. 

The problem is a multifaceted combo-meal of competing interests: more Americans are turning to fast-food because groceries feel increasingly unaffordable and because they've been boxed out of needed government assistance. Meanwhile, the workers providing that fast-food both desire and deserve better wages, which corporations then argue would drive up the cost of the meals they serve. So, what's the answer? 

Perhaps as expected, there is no easy solution. 

However, the fast-food industry is set for a reckoning in California that could have nationwide implications. As Politico reported on Monday, a decadelong quest to organize fast food workers in the state has extended into the final weeks of California's legislative session this month. 

"It is a watershed moment that industry leaders fear could have national ramifications. As a labor stronghold, California may be best positioned to be the first state in the country to deliver the long-elusive goal of unionized fast food workers," Politico's Jeremy B. White wrote. "But that has unleashed a ferocious counteroffensive from a franchise industry determined to protect its business model and confine the threat to California." 

If California fast-food workers are officially able to unionize, it could inspire other states across the country to do the same; per the report, this is something that International Franchise Association President Matt Haller is actively fighting as he is in discussions with leaders in "half a dozen" states beyond California, urging them to put a kibosh on the unionization efforts. 

In the meantime, however, you have Americans on both sides of the drive-thru window hoping they can afford to feed their families. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Fast-food Food Insecurity Labor Strikes