Travel: A love/Hate Relationship

I love to travel. I love seeing new places, experiencing new cultures and meeting new people. I dread eating when I travel.

I recently was in New Orleans for a conference (also why I missed posting for a while). In preparation I sent my list of dietary restrictions to the event coordinator and even provided my cell phone number in case the chef wanted to talk to me. I received an email saying everything was taken care of. I briefly doubted but put my fears aside. They had my list and instructions. I had specifically put it together after the last conference I attended, back in November. Maybe the instructions were clear and no other information was needed.

The first day of the conference I showed up for breakfast and the protein dish was mushroom omelets. Mushrooms, a big no on my list so that was out, but they had a selection of cereals, 2% and nonfat milk and a large selection of fresh fruit. I was in heaven. I could work with this as long as I got protein at lunch. I also had an apple sauce squeeze pouch as a mid-morning snack (I packed enough for two per day in my suitcase just in case).

Lunch came and I got in line. When I got to the front I handed the catering staff person my lunch ticket with the word “Special” printed below my name. Cool, I’m special, but then my family and friends have known that for years. But they don’t always say it like it’s a good thing. Anyway, I was asked to wait to the side while someone went to the kitchen. A couple of minutes later a plate was handed to me. I looked at three large white cubes of tofu on a bed of some kind of grain and a pile of squash on the side. I called the server back and asked what he had just handed me and was told it was the vegetarian plate. I shook my head and said I can’t eat squash or tofu. He then asked if I wanted the gluten-free or the nut-free meal.

Apparently they had three types of “Special” meals and guessed at which one I should get. All three had squash as the vegetable side, and the gluten-free and nut-free had chicken in a mushroom sauce. I couldn’t eat anything being served. I located the event coordinator and explained what was happening. She apologized and told me she had forwarded my email to the head of catering. I waited while she went and talked to the chef, who she returned with about 5 minutes later.

The chef had never received my email and I had just been listed as special without any explanation. After about ten minutes of explaining my food restrictions he told me he would have something for me each day. He also suggested I could start with the salad on the buffet while he prepared my meal. I joined my friends, who were almost done eating by now, and munched on my salad. My friends finished eating and one by one excused themselves to go find their next session. My meal arrived, which was hot a delicious, and I quickly scarfed it down alone. I wasn’t feeling so special as I finished eating while the staff cleared the tables around me. I slipped into my next session late.

I’ll post on the rest of my adventures in eating in New Orleans soon.

They Just Don’t Get It: Girl Scout Encampment

Recently my Girl Scout troop (I am an assistant leader of a mixed troop with girls age 8 to 18) went to encampment. Now our troop has girls and parents with special dietary needs. We have a mom with a severe peanut allergy and a girl in another troop with a tree nut allergy. We also have people who cannot tolerate gluten, one of which has Celiac Disease. We also have one of our volunteers who, for health reasons, is on a low carb diet.

Note: peanuts are not grown on trees and are not in the same family as other nuts, they are actually legumes. Someone with a peanut allergy is more likely to also be allergic to beans than to other nuts.

Our troop leader spoke extensively with the head cook before the encampment explaining the various diet restrictions. The encampment was supposed to be nut free (that means peanuts and tree nuts) and there were to be gluten-free options at every meal. While everything was peanut free, some items had nuts as an ingredient. One menu item had cashews listed first on the ingredient list. The lunch and dinner menus were heavy on the carbs. One meal was pasta with meat sauce. There was no alternative to the pasta, so our girls and volunteers who couldn’t eat the pasta only had meat sauce as an option.

Our leader always plans ahead. She had a variety of gluten-free, and peanut and nut free foods with her to supplement what the cooks prepared, so no one went hungry. (We did have an incident with something that was supposed to be peanut free, but I’ll save that for a future post.)

After encampment our leader contacted Girl Scout headquarters. The person in charge of the encampment staff was very understanding and concerned. She asked a very important question: Did the cooks just not get it or did they not care? We believe they just didn’t get it. We have been assured that the training programs for the cooks will be reviewed. The director was going to personally review the training to help remedy the problem for future encampments. She also appreciated the feedback. If our troop hadn’t said anything then nothing would change.

It is important if you have special dietary needs that you speak up and be prepared to educate people. Many people do not have food allergies and do not understand what we have to go through to eat safe. They also don’t understand the consequences we face if we accidentally eat something we shouldn’t. They don’t put us in danger because they don’t care, they do it because they just don’t get it.

Be patient. Be polite. But be firm. When you see food preparation staff making these kinds of mistakes take the time to educate them. Yelling at them, insulting them or trying to get them fired doesn’t win them over to our cause. We need them to get it. We need them to learn that while it may be a pain in the butt to have to serve someone with food restrictions, it is a bigger pain in the butt to have to live with the restrictions.