Conferences can be a big part of academic life. By participating in conferences, we can make connections with potential employers, meet collaborators, and share our own work. Organizing a conference can be similarly helpfuls: we learn about conferences themselves, and how to manage people and plan events. No matter whether you’re organizing, presenting, or attending a conference, you’re going to need to eat. Some conferences provide information about local food options, others provide some meals directly, and sometimes, interest groups or other affiliated organizations will host events that provide food.
Conference-affiliated meals and mixers provide a valuable opportunity to talk to scholars in our fields, and it’s important to make these events as accessible as possible. Different conferences address this issue in different ways. The Assistive Technology Conference of New England offers several options, including a vegetarian option, a gluten free option, a nut free option, and a space to specify any other allergy. The last Society for Disability Studies conference I attended provided a single option which was vegetarian, gluten free, and dairy free.
So, if you’re organizing a conference and want to make food accessible, what can you do? Ensuring any provided meals include options that work with common dietary restrictions is a good idea, but it’s not the only thing you can do. Some other ideas are:
Tell us what the rules are for bringing our own food. For some people, packing our own meals will be preferable. Maybe we need to eat something very specific. Maybe our restrictions are hard to explain – my primary issue is actually with textures, and recipe choice can make the difference between my being able to eat something or not, even within variations of the “same” dish. Knowing if I can bring my own lunch with me helps me plan – I need to skip the session before/after the meeting to eat, or can I eat during the meeting as long as I have something edible with me?
Know what facilities can support people who are bringing their own food. Is there a fridge attendees can use? Is there a microwave attendees can use? Is there kitchen space available? I don’t expect the answer to any of these questions to be yes, but I have attended conferences at universities where attendees had access to these facilities. If we’re so lucky as to be able to cook for ourselves at your conference, or even to store and reheat our leftovers, let us know!
Tell us what the “standard,” “vegetarian”, and any other options actually are. The vegetarian option is probably kosher and halal – but some of the others might be, too. If you tell us what the options are, we’ll know which is the best fit. Maybe the nut free option is the one that’s most likely to work for someone with chewing struggles. Maybe I just don’t like mint, which is commonly used to season lamb, but not pasta. Ideally, let us know ahead of time, but at the very least, make sure serving staff can tell us what an item actually is. Yes, I have been served conference food where staff could tell me what wasn’t in it – but not what it actually was. I still don’t know what it was, and I did not eat it – the unidentified or unknown food may not be ideal even for people without dietary restrictions.
Have ingredient lists available for the food options. For people with less common allergies, a talk with the chef may still be needed to confirm that there hasn’t been any cross-contamination, but the ingredient list provides a starting point. This goes with knowing what the options are: if something doesn’t normally have peppers in it, it’s going to be easier to keep peppers away from it.
List local restaurants and grocery stores, including chains. Whatever else is true of chain restaurants, they’re fairly consistent. For people with dietary restrictions, this means we can find an item we can eat at one place, then know we can eat something anywhere this chain is present. We can also go to the grocery store and get food for less money than the restaurants would charge.
Consider checking a religious calendar for observances that affect dietary restrictions. Last spring, I went to a meeting during Passover. There were several sandwich options, including vegetarian ones, which was great. There were only sandwich options. Jews can’t have bread during Passover. I did think ahead and pack my own lunch (see also: telling us the rules about outside food ahead of time), so I still got to eat, but Passover isn’t a surprise. We can calculate when it falls as far out as we want, and consider food that isn’t bread. Or for the month of Ramadan, we can make food available before sunrise and after sunset.
What would make it easier for you to eat at conferences?