While completing my master’s degree at Western University, I had the privilege of presenting my research at a number of conferences. Through my work with Food Allergy Canada, I have also attended a few conferences, both as a general attendee and as a moderator/facilitator. Living with a peanut/tree nut allergy, I have to prepare for conferences with a little more planning than the classic presentation prep. I find it useful to view the conference agenda ahead of time. This allows me to figure out when food can realistically be consumed.
In most cases, the conference admission will include some sort of lunch or, if you’re lucky, a full dinner. If this is the case, I make a point of contacting the conference organizer to speak about my food allergy and discuss what a safe meal entails. I think that trying to explain the severity of my food allergy through emails is risky because emails can get lost in the ‘spam’ folder, read but not processed, or they can simply be overlooked. For this reason, I think a phone call is always the best option for meal preparations. Here’s a couple examples of recent conferences I attended and what I did:
I recently attended a food allergy conference in Washington, DC, where I was surrounded by teens and parents living with food allergies. There was no food permitted in any of the meeting or conference rooms. This kept the conference very safe for the countless people with food allergies present. In fact, the only food I saw at the venue was sample packs of snacks from a vendor who made a point of asking what your food allergy was before offering any samples. The lunch time slot was extended to just over an hour to allow attendees to leave the venue, find allergen-safe food, and journey back to the venue in time for the afternoon sessions. This is an example of a well-planned, allergy-friendly conference.
Another conference I attended was less allergy-friendly but still very accommodating. It was a conference held in Niagara Falls for the Canadian Association on Gerontology. With over 1000 people in attendance, I knew I would need to plan my meals extra carefully. I contacted the conference organizer and had a special meal made for each of my lunches, which was great! However, when I picked up my lunch, I quickly realized that all of my friends had chocolate bars with nuts in them AND little packs of trail mix! When I realized this, I had to be extra diligent with my hand washing and careful not to eat anything that may have come in contact with the tables, or really anything at the conference. This is an example of a well-planned, but less allergy-friendly conference.
In most cases, it is likely unrealistic to request a complete ban of your allergen at a conference. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask. If you ask and the organizer says no, you’re in no worst condition. At least you tried! In any case, remember to plan your meals ahead of time. If the organizers cannot accommodate your allergy, simply make them aware of your allergy and pack food that you know is safe. Then wash your hands before eating. Lastly, always bring your auto-injector with you to the conference and ensure it is with you at all times. This is important in the case of an emergency.
After thoroughly preparing for all food possibilities at the conference, remember to prepare your slides, dress sharp, and have some fun! Happy conferencing everyone!
– Dylan B.