Inclusivity and Sustainability in Conference Food

Shaina here –

The boxes were provided food at a conference that didn’t have ingredient labels so I couldn’t risk eating it.

Many conferences have meals built in for attendees and whether it be daily lunches or a special event dinner organizers need to take inclusivity and sustainability into account when choosing the food. There are several religious, ethical, and medical food needs that are common and taking these into account would be a great place to start if conferences want to provide accessible food.  This article focuses on the types of food served and how accommodations are managed by organizers. There are additional needs around the serving of food that are not addressed here, but links for more information are provided at the end.

A lot of networking opportunities at conferences tend to center around food. Events such as ‘networking lunches’ and ‘happy hours’ are geared toward giving people opportunities to meet others in the field. These events tend to attract a lot of attendees with the promise of food. However there are many people who end up being left out of events like this due to a lack of accessibility in the food options. For many of us it can be yet another time when we don’t feel included or comfortable attending. Often when we don’t show up no one notices we aren’t there, or they don’t know why we didn’t attend. When we do show up we are left awkwardly navigating everyone trying to help us find things we can have (that don’t exist) or feeling hungry while everyone around us is eating. 

The few conferences that do attempt to address this tend to take the path of promising to provide food accommodations if dietary needs are expressed in advance. This is a nice gesture, but in my personal experience it rarely works out in practice. Over the last four years, despite being asked for my dietary needs many times, only one conference ever actually met them. We can do so much better. A better alternative would be to ensure that all food at the conference was as accessible as possible to begin with. In addition to providing food that all attendees will be able to eat it is long past time that conferences center sustainability in the food offerings. 

When accessible food isn’t provided it is a burden on people who need it. 

How much, just in food, I need to pack for a conference even when the difference days they are providing food.
How I need to carry my backpack with my normal stuff and a full separate bag just with the food I need for the day.

Those of us who need food accommodations are often left struggling to find food and missing large portions of the conference in order to go in search of locations we can eat at. At one conference I was asked for my dietary needs in advance but then not provided any food during the daily lunches that were included in my registration fee. The closest restaurant I could eat at was 40 minutes away. I cried from exhaustion and low blood sugar when I found out how far I needed to go to get food after a long day of sessions. I regretted signing up for the conference at all. I also missed all of the evening sessions and networking events. At another conference I could find no food anywhere near the conference. I ended up spending a huge amount of time going back and forth to my hotel room to heat up frozen dinners since they were the only thing I could find at a local grocery store. I can’t stay any place that doesn’t have a fridge and microwave due to all of my dietary needs and an almost total inability to eat out at restaurants. This often costs more money and puts me further from the conference venue.

Talking about how your conference is more accessible because you provide accommodations is performative if those accommodations don’t actually exist.

In my experience I am most likely to be asked in advance for dietary needs at conferences that are small and that have inclusivity and accessibility as stated aims of the conference. In one instance the organizers of a conference I attended were speaking at a second conference I attended. Their talk was about inclusivity and they mentioned in their slides that they provide food accommodations. Except that they had not provided me accommodations when I had attended their conference just a month earlier, despite having asked in advance. I ended up having a low blood sugar event and having to leave the conference during the networking lunch to go buy a bag of chips at a gas station to avoid passing out. It didn’t feel great to see them bragging about their accommodations on Twitter (and getting tons of accolades as well).

In addition students and early career scientists attending conferences are often on an extremely limited budget and already struggling to pay travel and attendance fees. To have to pay for food on top of it- especially if they already had to pay built in conference attendance fees to cover meals that they won’t be able to eat- is a large financial burden.

Sustainability needs to be considered in conference food offerings.

The scientific consensus is clear that plant based diets are one key component in confronting the climate crisis. All food should be plant based and for accessibility all food should be 100% plant based. However plant based diets are not the only consideration. With 30% of all food being wasted food waste must be considered as well. Compost bins should be available and throwing things out should be discouraged. If possible avoid disposable plates and non-compostable containers. When possible food should be sourced locally from independent businesses or food co-ops to minimize emissions from transport and support local businesses.

Demand side mitigation potential from diets. It is from the IPCC SRCCL report.

How can conferences do better?

Strive to make your food as universally accessible as possible.

If you ask for attendees dietary needs you need to actually accommodate them or to reach out in advance to let people know you cannot provide accommodations that meet *all* of their needs. Please try to just provide accessible food from the start to minimize the need for accommodations. Think of it as universal design for food.

Strive to have all food be accessible from the start by having all food served be kosher, halal, vegan, and free of the most common allergens (such as milk, eggs, gluten, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, and shellfish). Having an entirely vegan menu to begin with solves a lot of problems from the start since it already means the food will be accessible to folks who are allergic to eggs, fish, shellfish, dairy, it means many religious dietary needs will already be covered, and it is more climate friendly. Vegetarian food options do not solve nearly as many problems as vegan meals do since they are still inaccessible to people with many of the needs listed.

If you do need to provide food that is likely inaccessible for many attendees and have to go with just trying to provide accommodations then ensure that the food for the accommodations is easy to find and efficiently distributed. It is no fun to wait in long food lines when you know there likely isn’t anything for you at the end of them and that your meal might be stored somewhere else.

Help attendees prepare in advance by being transparent about what will be offered. 

If the conference provides meals have a complete list of what will be offered, including ingredients, available on the website in advance so that people can prepare. It is not sufficient to say ‘lunch provided’. Conferences should already have a page with accessibility information covering topics like closed captioning, wheelchair accessibility, restrooms, etc. Food accessibility information should be included on this page.

Provide ingredient labels on all food provided. 

During food serving times make sure there are clear labels and ingredient lists that people can check for themselves. This makes a huge difference to folks who need it. At one conference I attended they had asked for dietary needs in advance but when the food was served during the networking lunch no one knew the ingredients in any of the pre-packed lunches. There was one that sounded like I could potentially have it from the food title, but without the ingredients someone like me with an autoimmune disorder can’t risk it.

Minimize the greenhouse gas footprint of the food, reduce food waste, and disposable items.

Take steps to minimize the use of disposable containers, eliminate food waste, and ensure sustainability. Track the emissions reductions and waste reductions you are able to make so that you can help other conference organizers make the same changes.

This is not a definitive list.

In addition to the suggestions here regarding type of food served there are other considerations discussed in the links below, such as the configuration of how food is served (please no buffets) and considerations for the serving of alcohol (less alcohol or no alcohol is preferred).

Providing universally accessible food to the most attainable extent possible can go a long way to making attendees at your conference feel more comfortable and included. As we strive to make conferences more accessible for all attendees ensuring that everyone has access to food is one step that I would love to see more conferences take.

Success stories

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been provided with food at conferences, workshops, or seminars over the last 5 years. It is hard to describe how strange it feels to actually be given food. I feel so included when it happens. It is hard for me to understand that most people experience this normally. One time was when I taught at the Western Mass Youth Climate Summit. They had food that was all vegan and several choices (not only did I have food, I had options!!!) for gluten free options. Here is a photo of that lunch. The food was provided by a local business owned and operated by people of color. I used the same business (Pulse Cafe) when I got food for an event I was hosting. I made sure all options were vegan, gluten free, and kosher. The main allergen we needed to warn people of was a peanut sauce that was in separate containers. I had folks come up to me after the event to say it was the first time they had ever attended an event on campus they could eat at. It was one of the only events for me as well, and it only happened because I insisted on it and personally handled all of the coordination around food.
In our department beginning of the semester party food accessibility has been an ongoing issue. I have attended around 10 start of semester parties and despite requesting food accommodations each time I have only been provided with food once and I had to do the order on my own and pick it up myself. The graduate program director has seen my struggle and starting last semester we began collecting info on who in the department needed accommodations. It turned out to be over a dozen people, most of whom had been just quietly not participating in events with food. Providing food everyone can have from the start can go such a long way to making people feel welcome and included. Often when the majority of people are happily eating something like pizza those of us who are left out just go unnoticed and it feels hurtful. There are easy ways we can help change this if we just put in the effort.

Here are some resources for further reading on creating accessible conferences.

One thought on “Inclusivity and Sustainability in Conference Food

  1. Betsy Mendelsohn February 11, 2020 / 8:03 am

    Shaina, this is the article I’ve needed for 25+ years. I’ve been to too many environmental conferences that aren’t sustainable or inclusive – essentially that violate their own mission. I have shared your article with a local env ed org that wants to do better. Thank you!

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