Serve Inclusion At Your Table This Holiday Season

Written by Malka Goldberg on . Posted in Features

For people with food sensitivities, community awareness, clear communication, and a little empathy can go a long way.

From holidays to life-cycle events, food is central to Jewish culture and social interaction. This is particularly true on Sukkot, with its mitzvah of eating meals in the sukkah and the tradition of inviting guests. Yet for some members of the Jewish community, the Torah directive to “be happy on your holidays” with food and drink can be a fraught subject.

Baltimore resident Tzipporah Rose said she doesn’t attend many Jewish events since they frequently revolve around food she cannot eat due to her food allergies. “Having religious food restrictions is hard, but having medical food restrictions on top of that is even harder,” Rose said.

Liz Yehuda is equally hesitant to eat at kiddushes or events. She has multiple food allergies and intolerances, and a diet that restricts foods that contain a type of small carbohydrates called FODMAPs.

“Food is a tangible part of the way we express religion,” said Yehuda, yet “many people who obsess about kashrut don’t apply the same concerns when it comes to health and safety.”

“While individual community members have been great about accommodating me, most shuls have not given much thought to making sure people with food restrictions have something to eat at shul functions,” said Kalman Knizhnik of Silver Spring, Maryland, who treats his autoimmune disorder with a strict diet.

“While I don’t think shuls have to have dishes that cater to every conceivable dietary need, it would be in the spirit of bein adam l’chaveiro (interpersonal relationships) to ask if they can do anything differently for those who pay dues yet cannot eat any of the food.”

Jews’ Love-Hate Relationship with Food

Despite the Jewish focus on food, food doesn’t always return the love.

Several gastrointestinal disorders are more common among Jews. Approximately three in five Jews have some degree of lactose intolerance. Crohn’s Disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, is two to four times more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews, compared to non-Jews.

Additionally, the frequency of food allergies in American children increased 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC estimates that up to 15 million Americans are allergic to at least one food.

Given the higher rates of some gastrointestinal issues among Jews and the skyrocketing rates of allergies throughout America, accommodating and increasing awareness of food restrictions is important for the Jewish community.

Advocacy, Awareness, and Inclusion

There are several ways individuals and institutions can work towards greater inclusivity. For one, individuals with food restrictions need to advocate for themselves.

“Those of us with allergies have to be open about our food restrictions. Communities won’t know what they can do better unless those with allergies educate them,” said Lila Halpern Besser. A lifelong resident of Montgomery County, she has a life-threatening dairy allergy.

Food restrictions can be a sensitive topic — some people contributed to this article anonymously rather than publically discuss their digestive problems — but some degree of openness is necessary to get proper accommodations.

Clear communication is also important. Guests should explain food restrictions in easy-to-understand terms. Rather than expect hosts to know what is safe and what isn’t for a particular diet, it is helpful to give them a list. For simple restrictions, suggesting safe brands or recipes is an easy way to help hosts accommodate restrictions. For complex restrictions, consider bringing food or eating before or after the event.

Finally, Jewish institutions already aim to engage community members, so they need to step up in considering how to accommodate food restrictions.

“Much like we have many ritual restrictions for what we eat and how we prepare it, our institutions should carry the same sensitivities to health and to people with allergies,” Yehuda said.

To start, institutions can survey the community to identify common food restrictions and solicit feedback regarding good options for dietary restriction-friendly food.

For events involving food, institutions can follow these steps to increase inclusivity:

Provide a single contact person for dietary accommodations. This person should know the menu and be aware of accommodation options.

When advance registration is required, include a section for people to specify dietary restrictions.

Label foods (particularly those intended for people with food restrictions) to show ingredients.

Position dietary restriction-friendly food away from other food, and provide separate serving utensils for each dish to prevent cross-contamination.

Hosting Tips

The two most frequent comments from people with food restrictions are “please invite us to events and meals to socialize even if we can’t eat” and “please take our restrictions seriously.” With that in mind, here are some tips for individuals hosting people with dietary restrictions.

1.) Ask guests in advance if they have food restrictions.  If they do, make sure you understand how severe the restriction is. There’s a big difference between lactose intolerance and a life-threatening dairy allergy.

2.) Ask questions about ingredients. Not sure if an ingredient is safe for someone? Ask them.

“Please do ask about ingredients that you aren’t sure of,” Knizhnik said. “It would be terribly uncomfortable for everyone to have you go through the effort of cooking something special, only to find out that you used an ingredient that we cannot eat.”

3.) Keep it simple with these cooking tips.It’s easy for people to get overwhelmed trying to figure out what to cook for people with dietary restrictions. Rather than starting from an existing menu and adapting it, create a menu from scratch around the restrictions.

Small changes like putting salad dressing on the side or making a few pieces of chicken with herbs and olive oil can open up a lot of options for people with food restrictions.

4.) If it’s not possible to prepare something safe for a guest, tell them. “I personally don’t get offended if you cannot accommodate my restrictions,” Knizhnik said. “I understand they are confusing and difficult.”

Just as hosts should ask guests any questions about ingredients, hosts shouldn’t be offended if guests ask about food preparation.

“If your guest asks how you prepared an item, it’s because they are scared,” Yehuda said.

Sukkot: A Prime Time
to Invite People with Restricted Diets

For people with complex diets, bringing their own food is often easiest. However, some hosts may not want people to bring their own food because of kashrut concerns.

This is why Sukkot is an ideal time to invite people with complex diets. With meals held outside using disposable dishes, guests can bring food without hosts worrying about kashrut. This is a great opportunity to start the new year by fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity for people with food restrictions.

By Malka Goldberg

 Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah. She has complex food restrictions and often brings her own food to events. After much prodding from friends and family, she created a chart of the foods she can and cannot eat to help people cook for her.