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What could be better than pizza and beer? Why you need to provide more inclusive food at your tech event.

joelarson4 profile image joe larson ・7 min read

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.

pizza+beer=frown

Until I turned 30 I could eat anything, and I did – with 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 trouble – as 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 centric – bagels, 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 time – “oh, don’t you want some pizza? Other times the event says “Lunch/dinner will be served but doesn’t specify what it is – so should I bring my own food or not?

I’m definitely not asking you to feel sorry for me – as 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:

map of lactose intolerance rates Worldwide prevalence of lactose intolerance in recent populations via the Food Intolerance Network showing that lactose tolerance is most prevalent in countries with northern European 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.

attendance at tech events Of those surveyed, 16.2% attend a tech industry event (meetups, conferences, meetings at work) at least once a week, and another 40.3% at least once a month, and another 30.5% once a year.

feeling excluded
Of those surveyed, 29.2% say they excluded at some events, 41.6% feel excluded at most events, and 12.3% feel excluded at all events.

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 😆)
  • 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 restrictions – I can eat anything”
  • More results can be found here – did 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 hopeless – they 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 ‘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 fabulous – as 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 article – there 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 finally – please think twice about offering only “pizza and beer”!

Originally posted on Medium.

Discussion

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

There are only positive benefits to thinking in these terms. I've never heard anyone say "damn, I wish the food here was more cheap and generic". Any time I've been part of an event that gave a bit more thought to any of this, people noticed and appreciated it, regardless of their own restrictions. It's also positive signaling towards inclusiveness in general, which is always a good thing.

Pizza and beer also have sort of "fratty" cultural connotations, which can be unintentionally offputting to some. It's likely subtle, but it's just one more reason to give this some care and thought.

I have no dietary restrictions but my waistline doesn't take well to pizza and beer. A healthier option is way more likely to pull me into a meetup.

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miqubel profile image
Miquel Beltran 👨‍💻

I've been on both sides and I can say that is really hard to provide healthy/varied options when arranging food for events.

Sometimes you don't control it directly, but is the host company taking care, and even if you insist on the needs they can mess up.

Sometimes you are the one in charge, on top of arranging speakers, hosts, sponsors, swag... So calling a pizza place is the easiest option. Here in Berlin at least there are great vegan friendly pizzerias.

I understand perfectly this post and I share it 100%. I just would like to ask that if you are attending to a community event (and not a corporate one) give a hand to the community organizer to improve things rather than complaining. We got to know a fantastic "freelance cook" this way that prepares us amazing vegan food for events. Getting those kind of contacts is hard.

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Ariel Caplan

Crazy suggestion: Why not run meetups 3-6PM instead of 6-9? Let people go home and eat whatever they want! Keep it inexpensive to run a meetup! Let people not have to choose between going to a meetup vs. seeing their families!

Obviously the situation is different at a conference, and there it's really important to accommodate people's needs, since they're stuck for a few days with you. Definitely put special meal options on the menu. For people who don't fit into standard boxes, my best suggestion is what I've had done for me a few times: Give people with special restrictions the option to speak directly with the caterer/restaurant(s) and negotiate their needs. I've always found that caterers deal with unusual needs all the time, and just want to make sure everyone is satisfied with the service.

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breeny profile image
Andrew Breen 👨‍💻

One thing I think tech seems to take on board is the idea that the industry is different to others with the way it handles alcohol consumption. This is definitely anecdotal, and am sure culturally this is different in other countries, but Australia has an obsession with alcohol consumption regardless of industry. However some of the "benefits" (using that term loosely) is that there is some level of maturity around understanding cultural or medical reasons to not drink. Again, anecdotally, I've found that the tech industry has a lesser obsession with drinking than others here (finance, professional services etc.).

One thing I've definitely taken for granted is that a lot of organisations here are very accomodating to peoples needs - anything planned or run internally is (usually) very accomodating. However, meetups are still the usual pizza and beer culture - likely inherited because its the "cool thing" from US based tech culture.

I hope that this culture shift is something that continues globally - as Ben has said in the comments above, there's literally no downside to this (bar perhaps the additional cost - but having less food that is high quality is better than more low quality food in my opinion).

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maxart2501 profile image
Massimo Artizzu

The problem struck me recently. Personally I'm not allergic/intolerant to anything, and I'm very grateful of that now that I'm in my 30's. But the wife of a colleague of mine recently got hired and she's quite allergic to nuts and other shell fruit.

I knew about her for quite some time but now that I have to spend much more time in proximity I took the commitment to learn how to live with people with such allergies and not mess up their health because I wasn't careful enough.

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remotesynth profile image
Brian Rinaldi

As an event organizer, I struggle with this. Obviously, I want everyone possible at the event - the more the better, whether this is a free or especially if it is a paid event. Doing anything that might potentially turn away an audience member just isn't in the typical event organizer's DNA.

That being said, there's always the balance between what can I do to please the largest number of people on my budget while still accommodating everyone as best I can. So, first, let's differentiate between a paid conference and a meetup. You focus on pizza and beer, which is generally not the paid conference menu, but a meetup menu.

Keep in mind, most meetup organizers that I know of pay for the food for everyone out of their own pockets. Some meetups do have sponsors or patrons that help, but in many, if not most, cases, the organizer either pays for all or a large portion of the food and drink. In some cases, a host will sponsor, but not give organizers a lot of option for food. I personally spent hundreds of dollars every year running meetups that were free to attendees...food/drink sponsorships were rare and thus I didn't feel in a position to place extra requirements on them for what they provided.

In fact, I spent hundreds of dollars buying pizza even when I didn't eat pizza (I was significantly overweight and pizza was not in my diet). I planned ahead for myself, preparing food for myself at home before I went. To this day, I generally try to avoid pizza and beer at meetups, and I generally assume that this is what a meetup will provide.

I do think you provide a nice compromise solution that, whenever possible, the organizer note what kinds of food will be served. This will allow people to decide whether they can partake in advance.

I think it is fair to expect more from paid conferences. Keep in mind that, in my experience, food is generally the single biggest cost for an event. Big conferences in conference hotels/convention centers often have a lot more flexibility and generally can, should and do accommodate different dietary restrictions. Smaller "community" conferences often have to make concessions to the limitations of their budget and catering options (depending on the venue). I think it is still fair to expect more from a paid conference than a free meetup, but its still important to keep in mind that not all events have the same resources available to easily make significant accommodations on food.

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lukeb_uk profile image
Luke Bonaccorsi

We've recently decided to make the JS meetup that I run an alcohol free event. We used to head to the pub after the talks and the main benefit from that was the conversation. We can get the same benefit by staying at the venue, having soft drinks and chatting.

Food is one I want to address in the future too, but small steps at a time!

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daniguardiola profile image
Dani Guardiola

As a vegan person, THANK YOU

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andy profile image
Andy Zhao (he/him)

Yes! A fellow vegan programmer! And lots who attend tech events apparently.

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Jack Harner 🚀

Being blessed with no allergies, I'd never even really thought about all the different options you should have available for people. Thanks for this post.