We live in an increasingly diverse world where preferences, be it for lifestyle, clothing, or food, are evolving rapidly. However, one area that seems to have lagged behind is the hospitality extended at various professional conferences, particularly when it comes to dietary choices. As a vegan academic, I’ve often found myself relegated to the metaphorical—and sometimes, literal—sidelines when it comes to mealtime at these events. The sad culmination of this marginalization being a rather uninspired ‘vegan option’ consisting of a single cucumber bathed in salad dressing. Yes…this really happened at a conference I spent hundreds of dollars at.
Recently, I took to Twitter to share my experiences of being a vegan academic attending conferences, and the response was both overwhelming and illuminating. The support I received was heartening, but what struck me the most was the number of individuals who related to my predicament, each sharing their personal stories of dietary exclusion. There were tales of attendees who had to contend with insufficient or unappetizing meal options, and in some extreme cases, there were no options at all. The thread turned into a vivid tapestry of shared experiences, underscoring the systemic issue that persists in our academic gatherings. These stories were not just from vegans or vegetarians, but from people with allergies, religious dietary restrictions, and health concerns. These responses reinforced the necessity for a change, an urgency to transform dietary accommodation from an afterthought into a priority in conference planning.
Live shot of what it is like ask for a vegan meal at any conference or academic event pic.twitter.com/cANQftHJV7
— Dr. Noah Glaser (@drnoahglaser) April 28, 2023
Next week, I’m excited to attend a conference that not only recognizes dietary diversity but actively embraces it—the Immersive Learning Research Network. They have collaborated with campus dining to ensure all attendees, regardless of their dietary restrictions, can enjoy nourishing, delicious meals. Their offerings span beans, tofu, grains, vegetables, fruits, and a variety of condiments—all thoughtfully marked with identifiers to ease the selection process. Moreover, attendees can also avail the facilities of Balance Cafe, an allergen-free certified station located on the same floor. This café has received accreditation from Kitchens with Confidence, an independent body dedicated to ensuring dining facilities uphold stringent safety standards for individuals with food allergies. The café is “Certified Free From” the BIG 8 Allergens, which include peanuts, wheat, milk, soy, shellfish, fish, eggs, and tree nuts, in addition to gluten and sesame.
This thoughtful, inclusive approach towards food and dietary choices is not only admirable but also necessary in today’s diverse world. The Immersive Learning Research Network conference organizers have demonstrated an understanding of the need for inclusivity that extends beyond the academic or professional realm into the practical aspects of conference organization. It’s a testament to their commitment towards creating a holistic and enriching experience for all participants, irrespective of their dietary requirements. However, this should not be the exception but rather the norm. Conferences, seminars, and professional gatherings worldwide need to acknowledge and adapt to the diverse dietary choices of their attendees. Adopting an inclusive approach, like the one showcased by the Immersive Learning Research Network, is a step in the right direction. Doing so not only respects individual preferences and lifestyles but also enhances the overall conference experience for participants. After all, such events are not just about the exchange of knowledge and ideas but also about fostering connections. And what better way to connect than over a shared, inclusive meal that respects and celebrates our differences?
Finally, catering to diverse dietary needs isn’t merely about replacing the meat in a dish with a plant-based substitute. It’s about creating a meal as wholesome, balanced, and delicious as any other. It’s about recognizing the effort and commitment that people with dietary restrictions often have to put into navigating food choices in their daily lives and providing them with a respite from that at least during the conference days. To conference organizers worldwide, I urge you to follow the example set by the Immersive Learning Research Network. We all deserve more than just a cucumber in salad dressing. Embrace dietary diversity and see how it enhances the overall event experience for all involved. After all, food is not just sustenance—it’s a significant part of our social fabric, an element that binds us together. Let’s use it to make our professional gatherings more inclusive, welcoming, and memorable.
Moreover, it’s worth exploring a radical yet impactful proposition: should academic conferences consider going entirely plant-based? Often, these gatherings are platforms advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, these values aren’t always reflected in their dietary choices. Adopting a plant-based menu would serve as a powerful commitment to these principles. Such a change recognizes and respects not only personal dietary preferences but also broader societal values. An exclusively plant-based approach has significant environmental benefits too. Livestock farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gases, deforestation, and water pollution. By opting for plant-based menus, conferences can reduce their environmental impact and align more closely with the sustainability goals that are central to many academic disciplines. Additionally, a shift to plant-based meals can spark conversation and challenge attendees to question their assumptions and biases about vegan diets, thereby fostering a truly inclusive environment. After all, embracing diversity and fostering inclusivity isn’t confined to the realm of ideas—it should extend to our plates too. I urge conference organizers worldwide to consider making a comprehensive commitment to inclusivity that goes beyond the traditional definitions. Let’s make our gatherings a platform for sustainable and responsible choices, promoting not just intellectual growth, but holistic, environmentally-conscious progress.