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Sweetgreen’s ‘Family Fund’ Is a Symptom of Bigger Problems

Why pay for benefits when you can get employees to “donate” them?

A bowl of salad with peaches and cheese on a blond wood table

Every few weeks it seems we’re treated to a new “feel good” story about someone overcoming obstacles that, in an ideal world (or even a slightly more just one), wouldn’t exist: A person walking miles and miles to work because they can’t afford a car, demonstrating their amazing work ethic AND the lack of infrastructure that would provide them with affordable public transit; teachers “donating” their vacation days so a coworker can recover from chemo; someone raising money to pay off student lunch debt so poor children can eat. All of these stories should raise the question of “why don’t we have provisions for this in the first place?” and, as Samantha Grasso wrote for Vox, are signs of larger societal failures. Here is one of those “feel good” stories, this one about Sweetgreen.

In an interview with Quartz, Sweetgreen co-founder Nathaniel Ru discussed the company’s Family Fund, “a program in which white-collar workers at the company’s Culver City, California, headquarters can choose to donate a portion of their paychecks to a pool that gives more than 3,000 restaurant workers at Sweetgreen access to emergency funds.” He said he was inspired by Sweetgreen employees fundraising for a co-worker’s emergency surgery, and that the benefits have been used by employees for things like temporary housing or money to attend a funeral. “I think the goal for us was just a conversation between the employees and team members we have in both the treehouse [corporate offices] and the stores,” said Ru.

Quartz points out that “it’s easy to imagine people critiquing the program as a symptom of the problems with wealth inequality in the US,” and yes, that is exactly what we’re going to do. The American health care industry is inaccessible to the point that GoFundMe campaigns for things like surgery and life-saving medication make up a third of the campaigns on the site. In the food industry this is particularly felt; restaurant work has a high rate of workplace injury, and often doesn’t come with benefits. Because of this, Tove Danovich wrote for Eater, employers regularly fundraise for their employees.

Ru provided Eater with a statement regarding the Family Fund, clarifying that any employee can donate to it, not just those in the corporate office:

Our Family Fund at sweetgreen is a voluntary program for all employees, both corporate and team members in the restaurant alike. Members of the sweetgreen community can opt in any amount in order to support each other for cases of significant, sudden, and unforeseen hardship that no one can plan for, such as a house fire or medical emergency.

We see this as an added benefit outside of competitive compensation packages (including 5-month parental leave, wellness-time, team member vacation and a 401k plan). We continue to look for new and innovative ways to retain, recognize and take care of our people.

Sweetgreen, the salad bar turned power lunch, has come to represent all things well and wholesome about food. It boasts about its commitment to sustainability and treating its employees fairly. All employees are eligible for the aforementioned five months parental leave and health care, (though for restaurant workers, that comes with some limitations). The chain recently gained attention for promising $1 million over two years to bring healthier food to 350 American schools, which — while substantial — is less than 0.1% of Sweetgreen’s billion (and then some) dollar worth. It has also listened to community feedback and reversed its discriminatory cashless policy.

Though more progressive than most big businesses, it is still a corporation, which means it exists to profit. With the donation fund, the company inadvertently avoids having to substantially raise salaries for the lower tier workers who’d be most benefitted by it — all under the guise of encouraging a “relationship” between corporate and restaurant employees.

Sweetgreen can’t change federal health care laws or make plane tickets cheaper. But its choice to set up a Family Fund removes its accountability for what it can control, such as salary and benefits distribution. It could instead set up its own fund, outside of corporate employee paychecks, for workers to access in an emergency. However well-intentioned, the Family Fund instead passes the burden of “generosity” onto employees.

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