Safer Spaces: Potlucks and Allergies

When it comes to building community, it seems food is a key ingredient. We invite our friends for coffee, get to know neighbours by inviting them for supper… and community celebrations often revolve around food. Can you imagine a holiday, birthday or wedding without it? 

With allergies, however, everything suddenly gets more complicated. Those moments which should be filled with the most joy are suddenly the most stressful. Not exactly the ideal scenario to meet new people, either…

That said, I have found ways in the past to make things easier.

Potlucks:

Level 1: Asking around 

When I was first diagnosed with a food allergy, it was mild. I started having to ask friends and family whether there were any nuts in the potluck item they brought. Making it easier: These days it’s quite common for potluck contributors to label items as “nut-free” etc, and while it’s only helpful for one allergen, there is at least effort being made.

Level 2: Ingredient labels 

When I developed multiple severe (and rare) allergens, Potlucks became more challenging. At one extended family potluck, I agonized for what seemed forever… Trying to guess who brought what and which items were less likely to contain my allergens. As I watched my mom, sister, and great aunt do the same (they are Celiacs)… It dawned on me that we could do better as a community. Making it easier: Soon afterwards I organized a potluck for ~150 people. I repeatedly asked people to write a list of ingredients used, or to bring the recipe. I even provided crayons and paper at the event. It was magical- almost every dish suddenly had it’s ingredients. I also invited those with dietary restrictions up first, to reduce the risks of cross-contamination. Potlucks are always risky for allergies, but suddenly it was no less risky than eating at any friend’s house. As an added bonus many great recipes were shared! 

 (Photo credit: Carol Gaudet)

Level 3000: Bring Your Own Food

With this year’s new influx of allergens, you might think I can’t do Potlucks anymore. But, I still love to attend. I’ve brought food to microwave, wrapped foil packet meals to cook (unopened and uncontaminated) on the barbeque, and brought along dried meals. That said, it’s still stressful. I often want to use the disposable dishes or cutlery… But not if they’re covered with crumbs. Other guests have come close to accidentally contaminating my food as they pass items overtop my plate to one another. It’s a little awkward wiping down a table in front of new friends, too… Making it easier: Put dishes first, and where possible have a table for foods and a different table for eating. Gently remind guests to be aware that passing food can lead to cross-contamination, and suggest that if possible they go behind allergic individual’s meals entirely. 

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