Food as Inclusion

Every Friday night, Jews around the world welcome Shabbat around the dinner table.  Saying blessings for each, we light candles, we drink wine, and we salt and eat bread.

Fire. Wine. Bread. Salt.

These aren’t just Jewish traditions; I just happen to think of them that way because that is the culture in which I experience them.  But these are traditions that come in various forms in cultures all over the world, all through history.  We welcome people into our midst by sharing food with them, and making them feel included and welcome in our spaces.

Food is sometimes a central part of work, too.  We have lunch meetings.  At offsite events, we usually eat food together.  We need to recognize that how we engage with our colleagues around food is going to carry deep connotations for many of them around welcoming and inclusion.

There are many reasons that people might eat a different diet than you do.  It might be religious or ethical; they have made a choice to not eat certain foods.  It might be related to a disability; perhaps certain foods create physical discomfort, pain, or even mortal injury.  It might even simply be related to healthy choices; perhaps certain foods interact with their metabolism in unhealthy ways.

If you’re a meal planner, the first step is in recognizing that feeding humans is a trust, and not merely a quick transaction.  Most people with dietary restrictions are happy to tell you what foods they can and can’t eat.  If you’re catering, you can just pass that list along (please don’t try to summarize it), and ask the caterer whether the main dishes can be adjusted, or whether a special plate would be needed.  Share with the person how they get their meal from the caterer.  Be open.  Be communicative.  Recognize that the person on the other end of this communication has likely been poisoned multiple times by otherwise well-meaning people, and don’t take offense if they want to see evidence that their restrictions are taken seriously.

Sometimes, though, the meal is the event.  Perhaps you’re doing a team building exercise around a dinner table; if so, giving different food to someone at that table may be challenging to building trust and cohesiveness.  Consider how a vegan might feel at a steakhouse, for instance!  It’s one thing to have a different plate of food, but it might be something else entirely if the steakhouse is bringing around a plate of meats for everyone else to select from.  Or maybe you’re planning a cooking class together.  Having someone prepare food which they then can’t participate in?  That’ll have the exact opposite effect, and destroy team cohesion.

If, for you, food is just an enjoyable activity, you’re probably not aware of how many people experience food restrictions, and you might be wandering into dangerous territory that harms more than it helps. Coming out of the “no contact with coworkers” world that CoViD has led us into, gatherings over food with colleagues are likely to start happening with increasing regularity.  Take a few extra moments to thoughtfully approach food as an inclusive activity, because almost everyone appreciates being fed.