The story goes that we eat together to show trust, that we demonstrate by sharing food that it is not poisoned. Of course, that story doesn’t take into account allergies, cultural differences, and personal needs when it comes to food. Denise Lloyd, chief engagement officer, Engaged HR, observes, “There are so many food requirements now that it’s harder and harder to meet all needs and not ostracize people by what you serve. This can isolate people.”

Isolation is precisely what eating together is supposed to prevent. Food can also provide an opportunity for enjoyment: Early 20th century Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott said of a Midwinter Day feast, featuring the eating of forty-five sheep, plum puddings, mince pies and champagne, “With such a dinner, we agreed that life in the Antarctic Regions was worth living.”

While nonprofits are more likely to serve boxes of Timbits rather than sheep and plum puddings, they have long followed the custom of using food to bring people together and to celebrate work well done. But, as we become more aware of the diversity of our colleague’s needs, it also becomes clear that something may have to change with the monthly potluck or birthday lunch celebration.

First of all, most agree that we don’t have to do away with food-based celebrations altogether. Ary Maharaj, outreach & education coordinator, National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), says, “Although we are a staff with lived experience working among in-patients with disordered eating, we have pizza parties here. Food-based celebrations are not about to go away and we don’t think they should.”

Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching, agrees. “’Let’s break bread together’ has always been an expression of the desire for a communal gathering. It isn’t just functional, that we all must eat, but it’s a time to bond. Eating with colleagues is a chance to connect in a less formal moment and an opportunity to connect a bit differently. It will always have its place.”

It’s also important to remember that for some people food at a meeting or event may provide nourishment they might not otherwise have. This is particularly true with clients in social services, but could even be the case for nonprofit employees: only 4.8% of participants in the recent “Women’s Voices” report by the Ontario Nonprofit Network said that they are able to sustain themselves and their families on nonprofit wages.

But because our relationship with food is shifting, it does require changes to how we approach food in nonprofit workplaces.

Think about why

“Food is used all the time in nonprofits,” says Lloyd. “It used to be really easy to just bring food and get together. Now as people are more and more food-aware, there’s more work involved. But because it’s more challenging, it means we need to think about our purpose in eating together. It also means we can do something other than eating together.”

Just as it did for the Antarctic explorers, Lloyd says, food is often used to bring people together, to have something to do together, and to celebrate. Before simply defaulting to buying a fruit tray or making a batch of cookies, though, she encourages people to think about the specific reasons and purposes for the event. “If you’re using food as recognition but not everyone is eating the doughnuts you bring, you’re not actually achieving your goals. You can build a stronger culture of appreciation in different ways. Think about what you’re trying to achieve and keep inclusivity in mind.”

Make space for everyone at the table

Inclusivity can include making space for a wide variety of needs, from those whose religions and cultures play a role in food choices to those dealing with allergies and intolerances, as well as those for whom disordered eating is a reality.

This both requires being aware of who is at the table, so to speak, but also being sensitive to those who may be at the table. Maharaj says, “The national prevalence of diagnosed eating disorders may sound small at 3% of the general population, but that’s a million people, or the equivalent of the population of the entire province of Saskatchewan.” It should also go without saying that some food allergies can be deadly, while foods considered haram in Islam are forbidden, so it is important to exercise responsibility for those who attend events where food is served or shared.

Maharaj says, “This is a practical way of demonstrating our values, mission statements and equity statements.”

Talk nicely about food

Conversations about food can be more loaded than a baked potato, but there are good practices to ensure the inclusion and well-being of all.

Rather than labeling food as healthy/unhealthy, for instance, NEDIC uses the terms “fuel food” and “fun food” or suggests not labeling food with judgment labels at all. They also discourage conversations that shame (or even self-shame) around food, such as saying, “Ooh, I ate a piece of cake so I should walk home” or “You’re so skinny – you should have a bigger piece of cake.” Such comments implicitly make people feel judged.

On the other hand, it is helpful to ask those registering for an event to disclose their dietary preference, and then to include options for these preferences and to label food for ingredients. This also can be a cost-savings measure for an organization. Maharaj further suggests communicating as specifically as possible about food in advance of an event so that people can plan proactively to meet their own needs.

Access resources

A number of nonprofits in Canada offer good education and support about food-related issues:

NEDIC also offers remote and in-person webinars, interactive workshops and other presentations for organizations wanting to know more about the prevention, recognition and treatment of eating disorders.

Get creative with alternatives

Whether the occasion at which you might previously have just brought a bag of cookies is a celebration, a milestone, a meeting or another event, it’s a chance to get creative, says Lloyd. “It’s nice to get together and have food together,” agrees Chadnick, “but you could also miss the opportunity to actually link the strategy with your purpose and goal. For instance, a slice of cake is nice, but if you really want to acknowledge a job well done, other rewards might be even better.”

Here are ten alternatives to serving food or innovative ways of including food as ways of achieving your purposes:

1. Experiences are increasingly preferred, says Lloyd. “I see teams doing common experience events where you do something together and can participate on your own terms, whether you are quiet or outgoing. Food can be part of such an experience, but it isn’t central.” Experiences could include volunteering together at another organization, says fundraising consultant Lori Guenther Reesor, who suggests packing school kits or tying comforters as good group activities. The Hamilton Arts Council in Hamilton, Ontario suggests arts-based adventures. They offer monthly ArtBus adventures and different types of classes, but also say that a nonprofit team could go to a movie or concert together.

2. Sometimes people do like to be given something tangible and lasting. Years later, Chadnick has a small plaque that was given to her at a milestone gathering. “It can be nice to have something that lasts beyond the afternoon,” she says. She suggests even a small loot bag of inexpensive items can serve to accomplish your purposes. Some offices mark milestones by giving an employee flowers or a potted plant.

3. Rather than a potluck lunch, a team might be encouraged to exchange cuttings from their own plants or gardens if they have them. Others give people on their team a book, combining professional and personal development with recognition.

4. During Ramadan — when most Muslims are not eating during daylight hours — one organization thoughtfully provides takeaway containers for food for fasting employees to enjoy later that evening.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of words. Chadnick says at the end of a campaign, a letter from the executive director or a major donor or a kind comment on a LinkedIn page can be an excellent reward and recognition strategy.

6. Use food as a way to understand and learn about others, says Lloyd, who has seen teams build understanding by having each member bring in their favourite comfort food or food from their cultural background, and then to explain it to their colleagues, and offer a taste of the food. “This can be very meaningful, and becomes more about the shared experience and the story than about the actual food,” she says. “Even if people choose not to sample the foods, they are still connected together around food.” (This strategy is one of 101 strategies for engaging employees available through Engaged HR’s website)

7. “People do this work for the soul reward so replenish the soul,” says one nonprofit staffer who says this can be done in diverse or even opposite ways such as fun activities that build group memories and rapport, or by giving extra time off as a reward.

8. Remember that not everyone drinks alcohol or consumes caffeine when planning events or beverages.

9. Work out the knots, says Chadnick, who has seen organizations partner with a massage school to make 15-minute massages affordable rewards, while other organizations rent a massage chair for employees.

10. Whatever you do, says Christie Lake Kids volunteer coordinator, Adam Janes, “Centre your recognition on the work being accomplished, the successes and the people, and invite them all into more achievement and engagement.”

“People are building community differently today,” says Lloyd. “It used to be all about raising the barn and bringing the food, but today we are encouraging people to come together more creatively and use food only as it truly promotes inclusivity for all.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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