employee potluck lunches, with allergies

A reader writes:

I am a third grade elementary school teacher and our school holds a “potluck” lunch for the staff every other Friday. Due to my numerous and severe food allergies, I have politely excused myself from attending these gatherings and therefore I do not sign up to contribute.

Since the economic downturn, it has been decided that sign-ups will now be by the entire grade level, rather than by individuals signing up, to keep costs lower. (We have 60 staff members, so it does get expensive to bring food for that many people!) The seven other teachers on my grade level are now expecting me to contribute, even though they are well aware that eating potluck food could jeopardize my health and I still would have to bring my own lunch anyway. Do you have any advice for me in this “sticky” situation?

Why the hell is the school having so many potlucks? Every other week?! I’d be curious to know if the majority of other teachers like having them be so frequent, or if others feel put-upon as well.

I would simply talk to the other teachers on your grade level and explain: “I’d love to participate, but I have so many food allergies that it would be an enormous imposition if I expected others to accommodate me. So I’m going to be skipping them and hope you guys understand.” If you really want to soften it up, add in: “Maybe we can do our own occasional lunches on a smaller scale sometimes, although I totally understand if dealing with allergy restrictions is more of a hassle than people feel like taking on.”

Notice the words that were used there? You’re bowing out for their convenience, so that they don’t have follow your allergy restrictions when they cook. Never mind that they obviously hadn’t been planning to anyway; this reframes it in a way that should be easier for everyone to swallow.

Also, let’s take this opportunity to broadcast a public service announcement to everyone in a position to influence this stuff: Biweekly workplace social events of any kind are too frequent — and if you’re going to do it anyway, under no circumstances can you hold it against people if they choose not to participate. If you want to expect people to attend and frown upon it if they don’t, try twice a year. Jeez.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    AAM – what if that doesn't work? It sounds so reasonable, but many times, people want to try to accommodate. I have a brother who is severely allergic to certain foods, and I am amazed at the number of people who say "Well, the walnuts are only on this part of the plate" and *insist* on accommodating, or at least trying to, despite potentially life-threatening consequences.

  2. Ask a Manager*

    I think I would (a) express sincere appreciation but (b) tell them that my allergies are so sensitive that it's too big of a risk … and maybe add something like "I've learned the hard way that unless I watch something being prepared, there's a good chance something in there will be an allergen for me, and I don't want to put you through that hassle, although you're so nice to try to do something that would work."

  3. Cassie*

    I'm not sure how the atmosphere is at your school (or how much you are expected to socialize with others) – in our dept, we have an occasional birthday celebration or holiday party (people pay around $5 to $10 – not a potluck).

    I always decline to participate because I don't want to spend money on food that I may or may not like. And spend time with people that I don't particularly like socializing with. Even when it's the birthday celebrations – I've made it sort of my policy not to participate, even though I don't have to pay (it's usually just cake). That way, nobody gets offended that I didn't go to Annie's b-day celebration but I did go to Betty's last week or anything like that.

    If you want to join them for lunch but bring your own food – I'd simply explain to the others in your grade that because of your allergies, you will be bringing your own food. They should be able to make the connection that if you aren't eating the other food, you shouldn't be paying for it. (I knew one girl who, though possibly not allergic to most foods, was very picky – read: health nut – and wouldn't even eat the salad. She was plenty happy chomping away at her carrot sticks or apple slices that she brought).

    But if you don't want to attend at all, I'd simply just say that. I'm surprised no one else at your school is objecting to these inane potlucks (or maybe they are just afraid to speak up).

  4. Marsha Keeffer*

    I'm with a couple of times a year being enough. Cut the stress – cut down on the number of potlucks.

  5. class-factotum*

    I'm confused. If there are 60 persons attending, each person does not need to bring enough food for 60 people. Each person needs to bring enough food for a few people. Because you do not need enough food for 60 x 60 people.

    So the issue becomes do you want to eat lunch with these people or not? You can bring your own food. Surely the other teachers understand food allergies — there has to be at least one kid in school who has made it so no kid can have a peanut butter sandwich. Because you are not eating of the potluck food, you are not gaining an unfair advantage by not contributing to the table but you still get the social/political/career advantage of attending. If that's what you want.

  6. Mrs. Allergy*

    I feel your pain, Allergic Teacher. My husband (Joe) has a list of food allergies longer than your arm. People make such a fuss when he doesnt eat. Joes not eating! The buffets over here… Whats wrong Joe? Youre so thin! I baked extra cookies for you. He politely explains that he has allergies, and his coworkers and manger become personally offended that hes not wolfing down their indigestible goulash. Then they all swarm around his incompetent coworker (Fred) who eats everything in the room, including the decorative centerpiece. Everyone loves to party with Fred. Have some more cookies, Fred. Theres plenty since JOE didnt want any!(Freds also admitted to having food allergies. He just eats everything anyway, then constantly calls in sick when – surprise! – he feels ill.) Ill give you two guesses which guy the manager supports. (Hint: not hardworking Joe.)

    Allergic Teacher, if you dont party with the group, it could hurt your career. If they throw a snit over your lack of participation, bring a hypoallergenic dish. Cook something utterly bland and flavorless, something nearly inedible. Insist that everyone try some. My life threatening allergies have made it nearly impossible to eat, but I finally found great recipe. Try it! Look unbelievably heartbroken if they decline or dislike it. Next time, they will graciously exempt you from contributing.

    (A less passive aggressive approach would be to bring a larger portion of whatever you usually eat for lunch to share. You eat your lunch with the group, and then bring back your leftovers for dinner. But whats the fun in that?)

  7. Anonymous*

    Maybe they want your companionship, not just your food. Bring your own and something to share. That way you can participate and not be considered standoffish. But neither should they expect you to put yourself at risk by eating what they offer. Would they be more understanding if you had celiac disease or were vegan or kept kosher? Although your food choices, whether for allergies or any other reason, are none of their business, your co-workers might need a little help with their education…

  8. Interviewer*

    I don't know what your allergy is, but surely there's something that qualifies for a potluck. Off the top of my head, a cut fruit plate or a raw veggie plate might be a very welcome addition to the usual array of creamy casseroles. If that doesn't work with your allergies, surely something else just as simple and easy will suffice. (We once had a potluck salad bar at one office meeting that was wildly popular, but our group was twice as large as yours.) And if you don't want to eat a plate of celery for lunch, bring your brown bag lunch too. Perhaps they just haven't seen what you have to limit yourself to eating, and this would be an opportunity to educate the smaller crowd. We had one co-worker with a dairy allergy. Can you imagine attending a potluck where any cheese was a dealbreaker? Poor girl …

    If you truly don't want to participate because of other reasons (funds are tight for me, so I can relate – others might hate "social hour" with awful co-workers), then you'll have to figure out how to step around that. Perhaps whispering a quiet word into the right ear about moving to a quarterly schedule would be the way to go.

  9. lar*

    While I agree that a bi-weekly potluck is somewhat ridiculous, I'd be a team player and participate anyway. My daughter has a long list of foods she cannot eat for health reasons, and when we're invited for any sort of potluck event I just make something she can eat; I think that could easily apply here. Explain to the other teachers that you'll be bringing a vegan casserole or whatever you can eat, and don't agree to make something that would disagree with you.

  10. Mary Sue*

    Schools have a different corporate culture than a lot of places (full disclosure: I have a M.Ed. in educational psychology and a teaching credential but I currently work in hospital administration). Potlucks are much more frequent than in the business world, and pretty much every day someone has brought in pastry or something similar for the staff room.

    Teachers spend all day in separate rooms and lunch is often the only time they have to see another adult, let alone their colleagues or supervisors. Schoolteachers are also among the most stressed people on a whole (from personal employment experience, I'd say the only people stressed on a similar constant level are cops and prison guards), and these social events are a release valve for the entire campus.

    However, I'm wondering why the teacher who wrote in with this problem doesn't just make a larger serving of something they CAN eat to share with colleagues?

  11. Rebecca*

    For some people, the simple presence of an allergen IS a "dealbreaker." My high school boyfriend was so severely allergic to bananas that he broke out in hives and his throat closed up if someone was eating a banana in the same room.

  12. GF 4 Lyfe!*

    I have Celiac Disease (I can't eat anything made with or bi-products of wheat, oats, barley or rye), so I can relate. People don't understand how important a special diet is and that they simply can't be trusted to cook for you, as kind as the thought is.

    I have found at least hanging out with or without your own, safe food will calm people down and keep them from thinking you're some kind of cyborg who doesn't enjoy food.

    And depending on the person, if they keep pestering me about "Oh, you can just eat everything but the crust!", I will tell them in graphic detail what will happen if I do. Its not cute…

  13. Anonymous*

    Am I the only one who thinks it's kind of 'misery gutshish' to not contribute to a potluck just because you have allergies? Isn't the point of it to do something together, and wind down after a busy period? I am a strict vegan AND have nut allergies, yet I always manage to contribute….I just eat what I made, happy to share with others and get in on the relationship building and networking – and people really don't say anything because I am participating…bi-weekly is waaay over the top, it should be on occasions – but I don't agree with the OP that just because he/she has restrictions, he/she can't contribute and enjoy….does sound terribly humbug…

  14. Mrs. Allergy*

    @Rebecca: I would think if the teacher had that kind proximity sensitivity, the whole school would need to be quarantined. If she collects homework from the kid who just had PB&J or shrimp salad for lunch, shed stop breathing.

    And if she IS that allergic, why the hell does the faculty keep trying to feed her casseroles? Maybe she needs to tell her supervisor that not only do these events make her uncomfortable, but they also endanger her health. To be fair, they should hold at least some food-free social events for those who are uncomfortable bonding over the Tuna Noodle Surprise.

    AAM, could the school be treading into dangerous ADA territory with this forced-food-fun? From the letter, it sounds like participation is mandatory, either officially or unofficially.

    (P.S. Love the blog! Very educational.)

  15. Ask a Manager*

    I think — although I'm not a lawyer — that ADA would only kick in if she were experiencing some kind of adverse employment action for not participating (like being denied a promotion, for instance).

  16. Rebecca*

    @Mrs. Allergy: You think you're joking, but… there are "nut-free" schools now, and you can imagine how popular my old boyfriend was in elementary school. He wasn't happy about having to accommodate his allergies either, believe me.

  17. Mrs. Allergy*

    My husbands allergies are not life threatening, thankfully. (Just major GI distress!) I can only imagine how scary it is to deal with that kind of health risk. It just takes one person to bring the wrong snack…

    Id heard rumors of nut-free (and cupcake-free) schools. (Im not a parent, so I havent followed it closely.) I wonder if its an official policy, or just a parents request.

  18. RJ*

    I agree – this does sound misery gutshish, and a really nice friendly work environmet to me.

    Bi weekly potlucks are normal in schools – it's a chance to bond. Similarly, in cultures like New Zealand, Australia or the UK Friday after-work drinks are also normal – but then all those cultures have less of the mega commuting culture that is more typical in the USA.

    I agree – just bring something that you and everyone else can eat already! It isn't about food it's about fellowship.

    Or bring your own food and sit and chat – no-one could find that unreasonable, but you're missing out on mutuality and hospitality if you never ever share food with people.

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