Dietary Tribalism

1360016977Recently I attended a multiday event which included a lot of physical activity and required endurance. Knowing the participants would need to be fed, the organizers sent an email a few weeks prior asking participants about diet restrictions and food allergies. I responded with “paleo” then listed my food allergies and what happens to my body when I eat the foods I’m allergic to.

The midday meal consisted rice and bean burritos with some tofu wrapped in wheat tortillas or peanut butter and jelly on either wheat bread or “gluten free” bread. Dinner was rice and beans, chili made of beans and corn, lettuce with apples, and bread. I can eat none of these foods yet because these were the only meals offered I ate what I knew my body would negatively respond to.

By this time I was very worried about the days to follow. I went to bed yet found myself unable to sleep due to frequent trips to the bathroom. When morning came I was not only completely exhausted from not sleeping and all the physical activity of the day before but I was also extremely hungry. I had to make the decision as to stay with the group or travel home. Not only was my body undernourished my brain didn’t have the fuel it needed so decision making wasn’t easy.

I talked with a volunteer, a lovely young woman in her senior year of college, who said “meat was never going to be provided. The majority of people here are vegetarian.” I asked her “if you were the only vegan with a bunch of paleos wouldn’t you expect to be fed?” She responded with “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” She also stated the volunteers and organizers had seen my diet requirements when I emailed the form to the organization. However, no one made any attempts to communicate with me. I was informed by the volunteer “it was on the website.” Prior to leaving my home I saw the menu on the website. I wrongly assumed* my dietary needs would be met.

I then went to the organizer, a young woman in her early twenties, who said to me “buy your own food.” When I explained I had only enough money to get back home via public transportation she shrugged and walked away. My tired, hungry brain bubbled over into emotional tears. I felt devalued, unwanted, poor, and so … dismissed. That’s when I decided to return home.

It took almost four hours for me to get home via public transportation. During that time I got some animal protein in my body and was able to nap on the bus. I started to feel better but knew I wouldn’t return to myself until I slept in my own bed and ate food my body is accustomed to.

Food Tribes

More people are realizing the Standard American Diet of highly processed, refined foods is not “healthy”, thus creating dietary tribalism: paleos, vegan, and everyone in between. Whether intentional or not, food tribe members are imposing their personal morality and individualistic dietary requirements on others and it’s causing conflict and, worse, exclusion. After the 24 hours I spent eating vegan I felt so marginalized that my trust in the group deteriorated to zero. Thankfully, after my belly was filled and my body rested I was able to think rationally and realized this was a time for non-accusatory dialogue. But I’m still struggling with that.

Events designed to bring people together can, and do, have the opposite effect. One can bring their own food but doing so can insult the hostess which leads to more conflict. What one person eats as a staple may cause anaphylactic shock in another. Gone are the days when a BBQ of dogs and burgers, slaw and salad feeds 100 people. Family functions have become fraught with peril. The dietary needs of paleos and vegans — not to mention the multitudes with severe food allergies — are often left out at large functions when providing an abundance of food as cheaply as possible is the goal.

Economics

The Second Great Depression is making it tough for everyone. Personally I’ve been affected by an inability to find gainful employment. My fulltime job is looking for a fulltime job. The lack of employment has effected every single aspect of my life. Most discussions start and end with “I don’t have the money.” There are lots of events I don’t attend, conference calls I can’t join, and spend much of my time home alone, isolated away from the population because of the economy. Even my familial relationships have been affected. One member of my family will no longer talk to me because I could not afford to attend her wedding last year.

Because money is so finite, I pick and choose what I will spend greenbacks on. I have to weigh the options carefully: is what I want to do financially feasible? Will it throw my budget completely out of whack? How long will it take my bank account to recover from spending money on _____.

I planned to attend the event for months. All I needed was a small amount of cash to get to the departure point and home from the end point.  I decided the cost of the bus tickets was worth the event. I knew my meals would be provided so that was something I didn’t need to worry about.

I was very wrong.

Planning for a large group of people on a finite budget isn’t easy. Choices have to be made as to what is economically feasible for the group. Budgets have to cover the plan and if the budget does not, the plan has to be reworked. As someone who has done a multitude of event planning I understand this fully.

The group didn’t get the funding they were anticipating so cuts had to be made. But as the volunteer said “we were never planning on providing meat”. So even if the food budget had been slashed, my meals were never going to made available to me. And that was never directly communicated to me.

Solutions

There just doesn’t seem to be a happy medium in which everyone’s dietary needs are satisfied. A vegan may not want to watch a paleo eat chicken. Individuals allergic to nuts may not be able to attend public events where nuts may be in attendance. A celiac can not eat anything with grains in it, often excluding that person from eating grainy salads on the table. Bringing ones own food may insult Grandma who spent hours planning, shopping, and preparing a meal.

So what’s the solution?

Not imposing dietary tribalism of one group onto another.

Just as a group of paleos wouldn’t consider forcing vegans to eat meat, vegans should not force paleos into eating grains.  To look down one’s nose at someone who is eating as their body calls for is silently imposing dietary tribalism. The last thing I want when I’m eating lamb is for snide, rude comments, dirty looks, and a holy-than-thou attitude from someone sitting across from me. It’s just as easy for me to make disrespectful comments in attempts to shame someone into eating the way I want them to. For instance, I could say “Grains are converted into sugar and we know there’s nothing cancer cells love more than sugar!” just like someone could say “That lamb had a face! Meat is murder!” Neither attitude is appetizing. Leave your inner Judge Judy at home.

Finding Commonalities

There are lots of commonalities between paleos and vegans. Both tribes, generally, want to avoid processed foods, artificial ingredients, false sugars and genetically modified organisms and other forms of chemical engineered food. Both want organic, nutrient dense, low carbon footprint foods grown locally. Both groups focus on their health and feel, as individuals, they are feeding their bodies the best possible diet for optimal health. Focus on those commonalities instead of the differences.

Avoid Exclusion

“We were never going to provide meat” the volunteer said.
“Buy your own” said by the organizer.

Both statements made me feel other, marginalized, unwanted, and disrespected. Both reeked of economic privilege and offended me to my core.  Those two sentences made me not want to work with the groups who organized the event, nor with the two young women I spoke with. I realized the two women who spoke these words were young and what they need is education about privilege and how the choices they made as individuals and as a group affected me quite negatively.

What the organizers and volunteers planned to do about the exclusion of my dietary needs once it was pointed is the crux of the problem. Obviously they had no idea what to do so their response was to make what they overlooked into my problem. By shrugging off my concerns they dodged responsibility. This is not an acceptable solution. In short, their solution was exclusion.

Social movement want inclusion. In order to do so organizers must plan for all dietary and economic needs. Otherwise entire groups of people will be deliberate excluded to the detriment of the movement organizers are trying to recruit for. Basically: don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

Communicate

A few weeks before the event, I sent in the questionnaire regarding my dietary needs. The volunteer said “oh, we saw that” but the group never communicated to me their unwillingness to provide the requirements of my diet. The response I received when I brought this up was “it was on the website”. Putting something on a website is not the be all, end all in communication. By saying what she did, the organizer dodged responsibility essentially saying “it’s your fault. Go home.”  Being contacted when the organization first received my questionnaire should’ve occurred. At that point I would’ve been able to make a decision as to whether to attend, save money, prepare meals, and ask friends and colleagues for donations to help me procure appropriate food in order for me to succeed in completing the week long event — something I had looked forward to, and trained for, for months — was feasible.

What I learned from this experience was to be inclusive of all eaters. The next event I plan will either have food for all or require all to bring their own food. I do not want anyone to feel the way I did, not even for a second.

If you’re inclined, I often foodgram.

*Assumptions make an ASS out of U and ME.
**Emphasis mine

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2 thoughts on “Dietary Tribalism

  1. Rachel Melcher

    With people becoming increasingly mindful of what they choose to eat and the impact of those decisions, I think these sorts of conversations will become more and more important. As a vegan pagan, I have some strong feelings on your post.

    1) I am deeply sorry for what you went through at your spiritual retreat. I think it is unacceptable that a group asked for your dietary requirements and then, without communicating with you, did nothing to meet them. Maybe your information slipped through the cracks, maybe there was confusion about what you are able to eat, but either way I think it should have been addressed well ahead of time. Even if that was an emailed response that says, “Yeah. No can do.” That said, I also feel that the organizers, when alerted to the issue on site, had a responsibility to provide funds and transportation for you to get the food outside that you needed. It was their fault that you were stranded without food–I’d think they needed to take the responsibility for it and fix it in any way they could.

    2) As a vegan, I do find it life-saving to carry emergency food with me in case I’m in a less-than-ideal food environment in my social travels. There are buffets where every salad has some animal product on it, and that’s when having an apple and a Lara bar or a package of nuts or something in my purse has allowed me to enjoy the event without starving miserably off to the side. Even when hosts say, “Oh, we’ll have lots of vegan food!” that isn’t always the case when I arrive. Obviously, it’d be hard to get by a week somewhere with the stash of food in one’s purse/backpack, but it is a start to being self-sufficient for more immediate needs…and at least buys me some time to make other arrangements.

    3) I do feel, though, that it is completely acceptable for an event to be strictly vegetarian. (Or paleo, or nut-free, or raw, or starch-free, etc.) I host retreats, rituals, and sabbat events at my home and they are always vegan. They are advertised as such and dietary requirements and food allergies are taken into account as much as possible within the vegan umbrella. Anyone who needs/wants something that is non-vegan is invited to visit one of the local restaurants, cafes, or grocery stores to meet their needs during meal times. (Though they are aware of that well before they travel for the event so they can plan accordingly.) While I can appreciate someone feeling left out or excluded by not being able to eat animal products at my home, I feel that I have the right to uphold the rules of my home within my home. I try to find common ground. While I am morally against the consumption of, say, lamb–most meat-eaters are not morally against the consumption of, say, fruits and vegetables. If I can find the commonalities within our diets–whether they are fruits, grains, greens, nuts, legumes, seeds, or vegetables–I can make as many of them as possible to meet the palette and preferences of my guests. Is that imposing my dietary worldview on other people, at least temporarily? Yes, it is. Respectfully, my house operates under my morals, in all respects and not just when it comes to food. Likewise, while I know plenty of people who use recreational drugs like marijuana, or who smoke cigarettes, I do not allow that within my home. I wouldn’t expect, though, to go to someone’s house and have them cater to my diet or my smoke-free lifestyle. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect to have my needs met at some hunt-and-eat venison feast–I’d know not to go to that one. 🙂 I think it is healthy and natural to have personal boundaries that we uphold even when it may inconvenience or exclude someone around us. Hopefully, though, we do so in a compassionate, informative way that doesn’t leave someone stranded, surprised, at the dinner table.

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