On Free Water (A Quick Essay)
Growing up in America’s restaurants, drinking water for free always seemed like a given. I was raised with the attitude that it is my right as a customer to have water, and as much water as I want at that. Everytime I go out to eat, I fully expect a glass of water to be waiting for me at the table or that a busboy will soon be on his way with a cold glass of good old tap water. And never, I mean not once, did it ever occur to me that I was spoiled in this regard. I mean, how could someone deny me water? Right?
Well…I recently came across this post on Chowhound (a food forum) that begs a similar question and really put my skewed American attitude into perspective. A very agitated original poster wrote: “Is it legal for an eating establishment to decline free tap water to its customers?” Knowing what I know now, I would answer this question differently than I would have, say, a year ago.
So what has changed?
Water Outside of America
Well for one thing, I’ve done some traveling. Yes, my unworldly self has gotten a little worldlier this past year in visiting places like Amsterdam and Argentina, both of whose restaurants do not serve water for free. On both of these trips abroad, I found myself shelling out euro after euro (or peso after peso) for some mineral water with dinner. This was, at first, a huge turnoff, but being so used to drinking water here in the States, I begrudgingly had to order it anyway. This past year was my first exposure to the kind of world where the phrase “I’ll just have water” means you’re paying the same amount (if not more) than the person who ordered soda (you may recall me complaining about it here) – so coming back to America actually felt like a luxury.
Now that I’ve told you about this experience, let’s go back to the forum post for a second. The original poster also complained: “I can see if I didn’t order any food, then maybe they would shut me out, but this just felt wrong in so many ways.” I’m sure every non-American is laughing right now. (And no, I’m not trying to embarrass the original poster, as you know, I used to completely agree!) But I mean, look at us, we’re actually complaining about the few restaurants in our country who aren’t giving us water for free!
So why do we think we deserve free water? Well aside from just being used to it, there are plenty of reasons on which I’ve always based my rationale. 1. People need water in some form or another (don’t you remember that water makes up 75% of our body?) – whether they’re dehydrated, simply need to digest their food, or need to alleviate something spicy. Water is an essential element to human survival. So, actually making a consumer pay for something that is a basic need seems almost inhumane, especially (like the poster said) when the consumer is paying for other menu items. 2. Tap water costs little to nothing for a restaurant, it seems.
Conservation of Water
Let me just clarify that the reasons above used to be my rationale for free water, but aside from traveling, something else has come to my attention more so in the past year to make me think differently: conservation. Unfortunately, our basic need for water does not come without its challenges. Water is not exactly an unlimited resource. Have you ever heard of the half flush? Many toilets in Europe, Asia and South America all offer the choice of a half or full flush to be used depending on um…er…the output. They’re conserving water in their toilets for goodness sake, it’s no wonder they don’t just hand out water for free! This leads me to have more respect for those who don’t just pour water without asking if it’s wanted because what if the water goes to waste? With countless restaurants and customers, how many glasses of water go to waste?
The Future of Free Water in America
Aside from wasting water, there is another angle to the issue of free water in restaurants and that’s the present state of the American economy. As mentioned above, the original poster was agitated he had to pay for water when he was clearly giving the establishment money for the food he ordered. Some restaurants charge for the cup, others try and make up for the cost of rising food, but either way: restaurants, just like the rest of us, are in need of more ways to make money.
Water is usually free in America but if you look at the rest of the world, it doesn’t have to be. It’s no wonder that water is the first thing to start costing something in these trying times. So, seeing as how this restaurant is now charging for water – is this a trend for the rest of American restaurants? Is this luxury something we’re going to have to give up? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, you may feel a little confused about the points I have made in this essay. First I tell you that Americans should appreciate free water because not everyone has this luxury. Then, I complain that our free water is actually hurting the environment due to lack of conservation. And finally, I explain that Americans may be smartening up and charging for water to not only be conservative but also try to pull in revenue like the rest of the world already does. So what does all this mean?
I want you to tell me. Do our American freedoms and rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (maybe I’m going a little overboard here) tell us that water should be free? Or are we actually hurting the rest of the world and therefore ourselves by distributing free water regularly and not conserving? It’s not an easy question to answer. Post in the comments below! :)
Sidenote: I’ve taken a brief hiatus from writing about my trip to Argentina but I’m not quite done! You can read the posts I’ve written so far here:
P.S. I just noticed that David Lebovitz also wrote about this subject a year ago, great minds think alike? :)