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How to Boost Inclusion over a Meal

A group of people sitting around a table eating pizza.

NEW ORLEANS—Breaking bread together is a far more intimate shared experience than hunkering over an Excel spreadsheet, said Tracy Stuckrath, a dietary needs advocate.

During a Smart Stage presentation Monday at the Society for Human Resource Management's Inclusion 2019 event, Stuckrath, president and chief connecting officer of Thrive Meetings and Events in New Bern, N.C., encouraged employers to understand, respect and accommodate dietary needs to create an inclusive workplace.

"Food is our common ground," she said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In 2018, the U.S. Congress broadened that definition to include eating as a major life activity. 

"When you have a food allergy or dietary restriction … you can't just walk up to [a] buffet like everyone else. [The food is] not labeled, and it's not safe" for people with food allergies.

Even the aroma of some foods, such as peanuts and seafood, can be life-threatening to people with severe food allergies.

In May 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation said a severe food allergy is a disability under the Air Carrier Access Act "if exposure to the allergen restricts the passenger's ability to breathe," wrote Skift reporter Rosie Spinks. The catalyst for that determination was a complaint from a parent of a 7-year-old girl with a nut allergy who was denied early boarding. The parent wanted to wipe down their seating area to mitigate the girl's exposure to peanuts and tree nuts.

Not honoring an employee's dietary restrictions can get an employer into legal hot water.

Stuckrath cited the story of a woman with a seafood allergy who informed her employer about her medical issue and asked that other employees be instructed not to cook seafood in the company kitchen. Her request was ignored, and she suffered a severe allergic reaction that resulted in emergency room treatment, a workers' compensation claim and two weeks of missed work. She ultimately filed discrimination charges.

And in 2015, a former Panera worker sued his employer for discrimination, alleging that his general manager and co-workers teased and taunted him about his peanut and tree nut allergies and even tricked him into biting into a cookie containing nuts.

Where to Start

Employees who don't have allergies but do not eat certain foods can feel excluded when their dietary restrictions are not considered.

Vegans, for example, are often left to scrounge for the tomatoes and lettuce from the sandwich platter ordered for a lunch meeting. Workers whose dietary choices are restricted during Rosh Hashana, Ramadan or Lent are not fully included in company gatherings where there are no food alternatives for them.

Here are some ways employers can use food and drink to create a more inclusive workplace:

  • Involve your employees in planning the food served at your events.
  • Offer standard, vegan and gluten-free menus during catered meals at work.
  • Survey employees about their dietary needs, and allow respondents to reply anonymously if they choose. A tech company in New York did so, Stuckrath said, and used the information to label all the items in its company cafeteria to alert diners to the eight foods that cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions: eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat. If an organization is unable to accommodate someone with a dietary restriction, consider providing a food subsidy. Stuckrath said an employer that offered free breakfast and lunch to its employees was unable to provide certified halal meats for a new Jewish employee, so it gave that employee a subsidy to cover the meals the employee brought to work.
  • Seek out hidden ingredients in the food your company offers. Vegetarians, for example, won't be able to eat the vegetable soup offered in the company cafeteria if it's made with chicken broth, and the soup may also be off-limits to workers with diabetes because of the high sodium content, Stuckrath pointed out. Toasters may cross-contaminate gluten-free bread. Consider providing a toaster with a gluten-free setting (bread that is gluten-free is denser, and the setting allows the bread to thoroughly toast without burning), to be used only for gluten-free bread.
  • Consider your vending machine selections. Are healthy choices and certified kosher and vegan options included among the candy and other snacks traditionally offered?


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