Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Food service for the masses

I’ve been meaning to write about this since the Dublin IETF meeting. At that meeting there was a great deal of side discussion about people’s food restrictions and the availability — or lack thereof — of meals that attendees with food restrictions could/would eat.

I have to give two pieces of background information before we go on:

  • For the most part, the meeting was not providing food for the attendees.[1] The hotel stay included breakfast, and people generally had to get lunch and dinner on their own.
  • The meeting was at a conference center well outside the city. Breakfast and lunch really were limited, because of time, to restaurants at the conference center. Shuttle buses were available for going into Dublin proper for dinner.

Most of the discussion started with complaints from various folks about the difficulty in finding suitable food, especially in comparison with other meeting locations we’ve used. Often, other participants — who did not share the subject restrictions — would basically say, “Don’t be silly,” and would point out all the options that were available.

Now, it’s my opinion that someone saying, “I had a very hard time finding food that I could [or was willing to] eat,” is right by definition, and telling him that he’s wrong is pointless (as opposed to suggesting restaurants he might not have tried, which is... pointful?). So that’s not what I’m going to discuss here.

What I do find interesting is consideration of the extent to which it’s the meeting’s responsibility to ensure that various restrictions and combinations thereof can be accommodated.

We can sort food restrictions into a few categories, here in no particular order:

  • Medical
  • Religious
  • Moral/philosophical, but not “religious”
  • Preference
Within those, there are restrictions that are more or less common. Vegetarian diets, for example, are common, while potato-free diets are uncommon (but not unknown: there are people who are allergic to plants in the nightshade family).

It seems clear that medical issues are paramount. The problem with them in this context is that there’s a wide variety — it’s likely that no single issue, beyond the generic “low fat” sort of thing — is prevalent enough that it can be separately considered.

I think we can also agree that “preference” comes last in priority. You don’t like carrots? Oh, well. Most preferences can be easily worked around or are subsumed by broader categories. For example, I don’t like steak or roast beef, but I can often avoid that by eating chicken or fish, or asking for a vegetarian meal.

As to the remaining two, people generally seem to place religious issues above other non-medical reasons for dietary restrictions. I’m not sure that’s fair or reasonable. Is it really more “legitimate” for someone to be vegetarian because he’s Hindu than because he’s morally opposed to killing animals, or because he simply thinks it’s healthier?

On the other hand, religious restrictions provide a convenient way to define a few common sets: vegetarian, kosher, and halal cover most of it. Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that kosher food, to pick one, isn’t readily available around the Citywest Conference Center. That said, people who are strict about keeping kosher generally bring food with them, and others may be willing to compromise, when they travel, on vegetarian options.

It seems that the primary difficulty was for people with medical restrictions to find food, and I find it interesting that that would be any harder outside of Dublin than anywhere else.[2] Perhaps it was that way because our meetings are generally in or near downtown areas of cities, and this was unusual in being in the suburbs. Maybe it would be just as difficult in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Dallas, Pittsburgh, or Chicago.

Is it reasonable for those making the meeting arrangements to be expected to check out the availability of food that accommodates some list of restrictions, and only to select venues that pass the test? Who manages the list; who decides what goes on it? We can come up with a starter: vegetarian, kosher/halal, gluten-free, dairy-free, low-fat. Do we include vegan? Nightshade-free? Who decides?

Or is the responsibility purely on the participants to do their homework and make sure that they have what they need to eat?

[1] Yes, I know that the meeting isn’t feeding anyone; if you were going to cavil at that, look up synecdoche. For extra credit, compare and contrast it with metonymy. That should keep you off the street for a little while.

[2] In general, it’s not always as straightforward as it might seem. Nearly anyone can make do for a meal, or even a day, but a stressful week full of meetings means that one needs proper nutrition, not just a bowl of lettuce. Also, some restrictions require avoiding things that aren’t obvious: a gluten-free diet, for example, means more than just skipping bread and wheat-based pasta; many things can contain traces of gluten proteins that are sufficient to cause problems. Sauces may be thickened with wheat; soy sauce usually contains wheat; white vinegar may be distilled from wheat, and is a common ingredient in foods. Other troublesome ingredients include modified food starch, maltodextrin, and other things with “malt” in the name. It can be a struggle.

1 comment:

Lisa Simeone said...

Good grief.

Only in a society of such great wealth, abundance, and privilege can people afford to be so nitpicky, obsessive, and uncompromising about food. Instead of counting their lucky stars that they can eat to their hearts' content, they find ways to complain about it.

Wonder if we're approaching the day when no group meetings or conferences of any kind can be held, because so many people place personal, self-centered restrictions on them.