How to cater for all groups with workplace food

Providing employees with food that suit their religious, personal and health preferences is key

As food options become more varied, companies will need to work harder to make sure all employees feel catered for and valued.

At LinkedIn, it’s lemon tarts. At Pinterest, it’s happy hour. At Airbnb, it’s wine and beer on tap. Silicon Valley firms may be the most extravagant at dishing out food to their employees.

Hard-boiled tactics

The seemingly generous strategy is more hard-boiled than it looks. According to Daniel Gross, an editor at the magazine Strategy + Business, finance companies first hit on the idea of providing free food in the 1980s and 1990s, as a way of enticing highly-paid employees to stay longer in the office.

Since these employees were being paid a fixed salary, rather than by the hour, it made financial sense for their bosses to try to turn them into workaholics, all through the medium of nachos and drinks trolleys.

This spilled over into the tech world, where the idea that your workplace also feeds you smoothies and sushi has become so entrenched that Yahoo became embroiled in a battle with investors over how many million dollars a year it spent on free food.

The concept of colleagues eating together also fits neatly with Silicon Valley’s emphasis on entrepreneurial “water cooler” ideas. “The key to happiness is free snacks,” declared USA Today in 2015, reporting on a study that found two-thirds of workers with access to such treats were happy at work, compared to 56% overall.

Food for thought

But as anyone who’s ever eaten lunch at their desk knows, what you choose as your fuel of choice can be a contentious issue. At the same time that free food becomes a more expected perk, the variety of diets is becoming bigger as well.

While vegetarian options are now standard in most canteens, there were half a million vegans in the UK in 2016, according to Vegan Society research, compared to 150,000 ten years earlier. Two-fifths of all vegans are aged 15 to 34. Meanwhile, an estimated 8.5m Brits have gone “gluten-free”, and a growing Muslim population seems likely to increase demand for halal foods.

As a vegetarian for nearly three decades, the worst I’ve experienced at work has been mild mockery and the odd unappealing plate at a work dinner. But some diets provoke much stronger reactions. NatWest was forced to apologise after an employee told a customer vegans should be “punched in the face”. This came shortly after the editor of Waitrose Living resigned after it emerged he joked about “killing vegans, one by one”.

As for halal, although the word itself refers to everything permissible in Islamic tradition, it also includes particular instructions for killing animals to be turned into meat.

Although halal meat is already widely served by high street chains, institutions that try to be inclusive by serving halal can find themselves facing a backlash. “Soldiers secretly being fed halal meat,” one Daily Telegraph headline roared. A Croydon school’s attempt in 2017 to consider halal meat sparked a furious petition and some parents suggested it was driven by Islamophobia rather than concern for animal welfare.

Even when canteens aren’t accidentally fuelling the culture wars, they may still unite staff in discontent if they’re not tasty enough. In 2009, BBC employees were so fed up with their canteen that 100 of them made official complaints, ranging from inaccurately labelled food to being “humiliated” by a “very shrill lady” for taking two spoonfuls of rice pudding rather than one and a half. A similar protest was mounted in 2015 by ‘hangry’ NHS employees, including a ward nurse who found a hair in her steak and ale pie.

How should employers provide free food?

For the employer, serving up free food could be a way to workers’ hearts – or a recipe for disaster. Not all companies have as deep pockets as tech firms.

Providing food means firstly ensuring basic levels of health and safety. But beyond that, food is part of our daily culture and communication. If employers ignore diets that are “different” or “awkward”, they effectively reinforce one culture over others. Whether a diet stems from a religious belief, a moral principle, or simply health reasons, there are few better ways to make a person feel excluded than forcing them to eat lunch alone.

Of course, it’s fair to say that some people are more committed to their diets than others. Lapsed vegans, I suspect, are more common than their practising brethren (a US study found that the vast majority of vegetarians and vegans go back to eating meat). We all know the fate of the colleague on the 5:2 diet.

An employer’s first priority should be attending to matters of life or death. The Anaphylaxis Campaign, which supports those with severe allergies, has a leaflet offering guidance for the workplace.

This includes providing a safe area where allergic employees can store their food, educating other employees about allergies – not least the fact this is not a fad, but a dangerous liability – and offering flexibility for employees, for example, not requiring them to hot-desk.

After that, despite the sometimes staggering number of diets that seem to be on offer right now, there are some easy wins. While not all vegetarian meals are halal, for example, if they contain alcohol, most lunchtime dishes would be suitable for practising Muslims.

Vegan meals should be suitable for multiple diets. Providing soya milk provides an option for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. Canny employers might notice that providing all-vegetarian food would reduce costs as well.

Proud members of the awkward squad

In some cases, being a member of the awkward squad can even be something for employees to bond over. At Dropbox, a 26-year-old employee began holding “VegBox” lunch meetups for his colleagues, and even a vegan wine and cheese tasting event.

Veganuary, an annual challenge to go vegan in January, encourages would-be vegans to win over their doubting colleagues by bringing delicious homebaked goodies to work, although it warns against becoming “the office caterer”).

The easiest way to make all types of eaters feel included at work is also the simplest: microwaves, and dedicated eating spaces. Ultimately, not all diets may be entirely logical, and some are amusingly fleeting. But tech companies are right to see that, like in any culture, food is an important ingredient in the workplace.

For all the talk of militant vegans, most people following unusual diets are used to bringing their own sandwiches to work, but employers with attention to detail can make them feel like they really belong. And that would be the icing on the dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free, cake.

By Julia Rampen.

In this article, you learned that:

  • For employees with allergies, providing a safe area where they can store their food, as well as educating others about allergies and offering flexibility for affected employees like not requiring them to hot-desk are good ideas
  • If you do provide free food, vegan options can be inclusive and good for those with religious and health-based diets, providing they don’t contain alcohol for those adhering to a Halal diet
  • You can provide workplace information through leaflets about serious allergic conditions like Anaphylaxis

Julia Rampen

Julia Rampen is the digital night editor at the Liverpool Echo, a former digital news editor at the New Statesman and financial journalist.

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