If you’re not careful about the food and drink you serve at your tech event (well, really any event), you could leave people feeling hungry and excluded, or even in need of urgent medical care.
Until I turned 30 I could eat anything, and I didâ€Š–â€Šwith gusto! Then I started to notice that most dairy products gave me a serious belly ache, so I stopped consuming them and felt better. For the next few years it seemed like every six months there was some new food that gave me trouble in one way or another, varying from discomfort to straight-up allergic reaction. I saw various doctors, but the only real solution was to not eat these foods. It was a long road of adaptation and sadness as I said goodbye to food and drink I once loved (I still miss beer so much!), and found alternatives.
At this point my list of foods to avoid is pretty long, and includes dairy, wheat products, beef, onions, and soy. This can make eating with other people a challenge. My family and friends are very helpful and accommodating. Most restaurants (though not all) have a salad that will fill me up and won’t give me troubleâ€Š–â€Šas long as they can make a few modifications.
But at some work meetings, conferences and tech meetups it can be more challenging. The choices are often very wheat & dairy centricâ€Š–â€Šbagels, pastries, sandwiches, and of course pizza. Pizza and beer are a perennial favorite, probably because they are relatively cheap, easy to order, and the majority of people enjoy them. For these kinds of events I have to make sure to bring something else to eat, or eat beforehand. This is fine, except for the fact it then I have to talk about every timeâ€Š–â€Š“oh, don’t you want some pizza? Other times the event says “Lunch/dinner will be served but doesn’t specify what it isâ€Š–â€Šso should I bring my own food or not?
I’m definitely not asking you to feel sorry for meâ€Š–â€Šas someone who is privileged in almost every way, this just about the only part of my life where I feel excluded. I’m usually able to handle these situations socially without having it ruin my day, especially after years of practice. And I am fortunate enough to be able to easily afford alternative food options.
But not everyone is so lucky, and I’m not alone in not being able to consume pizza and beer. Celiac disease and other wheat issues may affect up to 5% of the population (whether or not you personally think gluten intolerance is a hipster conspiracy). Meanwhile, dairy is a problem for as much as 65% of the population.
Check out this map of lactose intolerance rates worldwide:
Worldwide prevalence of lactose intolerance in recent populations via the Food Intolerance Network showing that lactose tolerance is most prevalent in countries with northern EuropeanÂ ancestry.
It’s not a stretch to say that a dairy-infused menu favors people of European descent. In addition such a menu excludes vegans. Depending on the details it may also exclude people following a Kosher or Halal diet.
Of course there are many other types of dietary restrictions, ranging from medically necessary to those based on personal beliefs or religious practices. To find out more about the variety and impact of these restrictions, I put together a little survey:
At the time of writing I’ve gotten 154 responses. The results are in no way scientific since most of the respondents are self-selected, but they’re still helpful in understanding the impact of the food and drinks you offer at your events. Let’s look at some of the results.
When asked “What’s the best label for your dietary restrictions?”, I got these responses:
- 20.9% checked “Vegan”
- 17.7% checked “No alcohol (or my original misspelling “No alchohol ðŸ˜†)
- 17.6% checked “Vegetarian”
- 17.6% checked “Other allergy or intolerance”
- 14.4% checked “Dairy allergy”
- 13.7% checked “Gluten allergy”
- 11.1% checked “No restrictionsâ€Š–â€ŠI can eat anything”
- More results can be found hereâ€Š–â€Šdid you know a person can be allergic to lettuce? Another respondent reported they have a “corn allergy + 30 other foods, react from being near corn even if I don’t eat it”.
I got a lot of interesting responses to the question “Do you have a short personal anecdote about a time you felt excluded OR included by the food choices offered?”
- “Just starving at some conferences because the organizers were amateurs and didn’t order anything for dietary restrictions or even consider it in the signup.”
- “My allergy is severe. Thankfully my company is getting better at making sure there is food for me. We do hackathons annually. They included fruit for breakfast because of me. They also got a large vegan pizza and had it available in another room so the risk of cross contamination was less. I got to hang out with the vegans who were happy there was a pizza and breakfast options for them.”
- “I can’t even remember the final details, but i definitely recall feeling like AlterConf was really interested in making sure that i’d be able not just to eat something, but to feel like i had a meal to the same extent that people with any other diet did. also Madison Ruby did something remarkable. Instead of providing food, they provided vouchers that were accepted at at least a dozen different restaurants within a 5–10 minute walk of the venue, so we could eat what we wanted as well as get a glimpse of beautiful downtown Madison.”
- “Not sure if it’s about feelings or food, but as for me, it’s pretty simple: all I want is something HEALTHY to eat! For me it’s not about restrictions, religious requirements, or “feeling welcome”, I’d just love to see fresh, healthy choices…anything other than pizza/soda/beer.”
- “The admin tries to help my allergies but it’s totally hopelessâ€Š–â€Šthey always order gluten free stuff for me but forget I’m pretty much grain free and then I have to decline and they feel bad. Just don’t bother ordering for me it is super akward!”
- “My case is challenging because I’m a vegetarian who is allergic to avocado. Lots of sandwiches are unlabeled (or just say “turkey or “vegetarian and do not specify that they contain avocado). This is why I like to see complete ingredient lists.”
As you can see, the food you offer makes a huge difference in how welcome people feel at your event, whether it’s a lunch meeting or a conference.
So what can you do if you’re organizing an event and you want to be sure that you don’t exclude all the people who have dietary restrictions? I asked about that also.
- 66.9% checked “Clearly labelling all food and drinks offered”. This allows us to make informed choices.
- 59.6% checked “Sharing the exact food and drink menu the event will offer”. This allows us to plan ahead and bring something different if we need to.
- 57.0% checked “Offering a â€˜food bar’ with many choices”. This allows those of us with less serious allergies and restrictions to select things that work for us.
- 37.1% checked “Inviting attendees to place a custom order in advance”. This is probably the best option since it puts control in the hands of your attendees.
- 15.2% checked “Reimbursing me for any food related charges if no food will be available that works for me”. This is may be a last resort, but for some people it’s the only workable option.
There were also some other write-ins of interest:
- “NOT having a buffet. That makes cross-contamination very likely; I’ve never successfully eaten from a buffet that was not 100% gluten-free.”
- “A salad option is fabulousâ€Š–â€Šas long as it’s not filled with bacon, shredded cheese and/or croutons. Keep it veg and GF pleez!”
- “fewer events clearly centered around alcohol (btw, it’s worth reading Alcohol and Inclusivity to understand why alcohol at tech events can be a toxic choice)
- “Pre-event surveys to find out what dietary restrictions need to be accommodated.”
Anyway, if you are a person with a dietary restriction I hope you felt some solidarity from reading this articleâ€Š–â€Šthere are a lot of us! At the same time, when you ask for accommodations please recognize that often the people arranging food for an event are under time and budgetary pressures, and may not have had these issues brought up before. Most of the time organizers are eager to make you feel welcome at their event. Feel free to forward them this article so they can understand more about the issues. And if you want to leave a personal anecdote in the comments about your experiences that would be great too!
Meanwhile, if you plan events in the tech industry (or really anywhere), please consider people with dietary restrictions when ordering food and drinks. When you send out invites or create advertising, try to share the exact food and drink menu the event will offer (including the caterer or restaurant if possible). Also try to make sure that all food and drinks offered are clearly labelled, or that the caterer or restaurant can take questions about the ingredients. If someone asks for an accommodation please try to make it possible. I promise we will truly appreciate it.
And finallyâ€Š–â€Šplease think twice about offering only “pizza and beer”!
Originally posted on Medium.