Let's do lunch -your desk or mine?

When social historians of the future look back on the late-20th-century workplace, they will record two major trends: the rise in telecommuting and the popularity of family-related benefits. If they have been paying close attention, they will also mention a third change: the demise of the lunch hour.

Ah, lunch. Remember that once-popular midday break, when employees actually left their desks and headed for the company cafeteria or a nearby restaurant to enjoy a meal, however modest? It was a time to relax, perhaps with a co-worker or friend, before returning to work, nourished and refreshed.

Now that taken-for-granted routine is becoming a quaint memory for many workers. Replacing it is a far more mundane ritual: lunch at the desk. Thanks to a prevailing all-work-all-the-time culture, in which a desire for greater efficiency and productivity dominates, "lunch hour" has become an oxymoron. Who can spare an hour, or even 30 minutes?

No wonder the once-lowly brown bag has become a status symbol of sorts, sending a quiet message: I'm so busy I don't have time to eat out.

All across the country, catering trucks and takeout delivery vans weave their way through cities and suburbs at midday, dropping off everything from fruit plates and sandwiches to pizza and Chinese food.

As further evidence confirming a shift in corporate culture, social historians can point to that new American icon, the office refrigerator. Open the door of any office fridge and you'll find a jumble of yogurt cartons, salads, plastic containers filled with leftovers, bags of baby carrots, jars of mayonnaise and mustard, soda cans, and the occasional shriveled orange. Nearby sits that other lunchtime essential, the office microwave. Push a few buttons and presto! - a desk-side meal.

This no-time-for-lunch movement hardly ranks as an exclusively American phenomenon. It has spread to Britain and even to France, that legendary home of leisurely gastronomy.

But not everyone is content to accept the status quo. Last week an estimated 150,000 people gathered in Turin, Italy, for the 14th annual Slow Food Fair. The international event is designed to counter the fast-food trend and the frenetic pace of many modern meals. Organizers want to restore the pleasures of leisurely eating.

Even beyond the workplace, lunch has fallen out of favor. Consider a few common phrases:

"Ladies who lunch" ranks as a pejorative term. It suggests that anyone who has time for a leisurely midday meal, complete with friends and conversation, is the epitome of idleness.

Describing someone as "out to lunch" is equally uncomplimentary. Even "Let's do lunch," an airy phrase seemingly filled with good intentions, frequently remains an empty suggestion.

My seatmate on a recent flight to Boston illustrates the no-lunch trend by telling about the high-tech company where his wife works. Her boss eats at her desk every day and expects her staff to do the same. "It's really irritating to the employees," the man says. But no one dares complain.

That boss's expectation is extreme, of course. But it symbolizes a nonstop work mentality that has become pervasive.

Those of us who brown-bag frequently - and by choice - know the advantages: It is efficient and inexpensive. It also allows time to do errands or take a walk in the sunshine. And if an impromptu lunch date comes up, it's easy to jettison an occasional tuna sandwich.

Still, as a way of life, being deskbound all day has its limits. The Slow Food movement, which began with one man's opposition to the effects of fast food on Italian life, offers a reminder that working longer does not always mean working smarter.

That message could serve as a motivator to hang an "Out to lunch" sign on our cubicles and head for the door at noon. Our mothers, who preached the virtues of regular meals, would surely approve.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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