Tackling Food Allergies
Case Study: How one team dealt with multiple needsPosted Dec 13, 2010 News
Recently I managed the onsite logistics of a conference for the Anaphylaxis and Food Allergy Association of Minnesota (AFAA), a nonprofit serving those with life-threatening food allergies.
Part of my responsibility was to help with food and beverage choices. As a planner, I am familiar with putting together event menus. However, at this conference, we had to take into account the allergies of our guests. In addition to the menu, we had to consider budget, meal guarantee and breaks, and attendee preferences. It was imperative to avoid foods that may send someone to the emergency room.
Strong partnerships were crucial between the planner (me), AFAA’s executive director, and the chef and catering manager of Radisson University Hotel-Minneapolis. AFAA’s executive director, whose children have life-threatening food allergies, patiently educated the team about food allergies. The hotel catering staff willingly went above and beyond at every step of the way in menu choices and food preparation. As the planner, I designed the process for a seamless onsite experience from meal registration to allergy designation on meal tickets, which ensured wait staff was able to easily identify those who required special meals. Extensive communication was ongoing throughout the process.
Because of the allergy issue, participants could register to eat lunch or not. This year 40 people registered for lunch, some with serious food allergies or celiac disease. Lunch registrants were asked to list foods they were unable to eat. There were eight foods that one or more participants needed to avoid: soy, milk, tree nuts, seafood, fish, pork, gluten (which includes wheat, barley, and oats), and foods containing dyes. Additionally, we had several participants register as vegetarians.
It is easy for a planner to feel overwhelmed by these requirements. How can I make sure the food is safe, wholesome and still attractive? A buffet may seem a reasonable answer, except for the serious risk of cross contact or contamination. The offending foods cannot be prepared on the same equipment nor touch the safe foods. For example, gluten-free rolls cannot be served in the same baskets with rolls containing gluten.
Budget constraints precluded a special meal for each person, so we started with a vegetarian menu and worked backward from there. The team settled on baked acorn squash stuffed with wild rice and dried berries and served with a glaze, seasonal vegetables and garden salad. However, while researching the processing of the berries they wanted to use, the chef learned they are processed in the same room with nuts. This could cause an allergic reaction if the berries were eaten by anyone with nut allergies, so the chef substituted another item. Only gluten-free bread was served and advisory labels were placed next to salad dressings that contained soy.
Careful planning resulted in only one meal requiring modification; that meal was served without the glaze because it contained butter.
Coffee breaks also required careful attention. No cream, milk or coffee creamers, which may contain dairy or soy products, were served. Hazelnut coffee was not an option because of possible nut allergies. To complicate matters, the team learned that any regular coffee served could not be ground or brewed in the same equipment as hazelnut coffees to avoid cross contamination.
We were determined to offer meal choices that were as seamless as possible for all involved, and we did it! The experience provides a model for future events. Though challenging, it is possible to successfully choose inviting food and beverage items for the allergy community when all stakeholders are engaged during the entire process.
By Annette H. Marquez
The Perfect Occasion