Food Festivals Can Do Better to Include Food Allergies

One of the best things about being outdoors in the summer is the variety of festivals, many of which involve food. But what happens when you have a food allergy? Attending food festivals, carnivals, summer fairs can be a challenge, even when the event is geared towards food you can safely eat. That’s what I found this weekend when I attended the 2nd annual WNY Veg Fest in Buffalo, New York

I was really looking forward to this celebration of vegan food and anticipated all week long what delicacies I might eat. Eating vegan is easy when you have an allergy to dairy since vegan faire does not include any milk or dairy products.

Veg Fests are becoming more popular and are held in cities throughout the country. Buffalo’s is in its infancy and while I applaud the efforts of organizers there were many aspects to this festival that I thought could have been done better. First let me point out that I appreciate this festival was geared towards local eateries and not chain restaurants. Also, the portion size of food served was plentiful and reasonably priced. The event was also family friendly with an area dedicated to children’s activities. However, there are areas that need improvement:

The food was mainly housed in a small covered area of the park. The main word here is small. There were a half dozen to dozen food vendors cramped into a small space which made moving from vendor to vendor to see what was being served difficult.

It was also hard to know which restaurants were even present since their banners hung in front of the table and not behind and above the table. If you were trying to find a particular restaurant it was impossible see the signage, some of which was hand written and hard to read. The space also didn’t seem overly clean and I was surprised not to find plentiful hand sanitizer at the stands or at the entrances and exits of this area. In fact, I didn’t see any sanitizer stands anywhere at the event which was odd considering it was food related and considering some food vendors were not wearing gloves.

There also were not enough trash cans and it was common to see vendors with boxes of trash behind their tables where they were also storing food. Few vendors had food displayed so it was hard to know what you were ordering. Also, it would have been helpful for all vendors to have a small sampling area so participants could actually taste what is probably uncommon for them to normally eat. Would your average meat eater or occasional vegetarian really know what Seitan is or Ethiopian food? How nice it would have been if the vegan pizzeria would have had small samples of its pizza out for people to visually see and taste. An event like this not only needs people who eat vegan to attend but also needs to attract non-vegans as well. How do you do that? Entice people to buy your item by letting them sample a small taste first. I eat vegan and everything at this festival was allergy safe for me to eat, but based on the presentation there was nothing I was even remotely interested in purchasing!

Overall the space needed to be bigger, cleaner and, and presented in a visually and more professional manner. And while I love dogs, having dogs in areas where food is being served and eaten is not appealing.

There were other vendors in attendance but many of them did not seem appropriate for the theme of the event. While I enjoy looking at handmade jewelry, glass bowls and pottery, I fail to see the connection to vegan living. Where were the organic farmers? Where were the gardening experts? What a missed opportunity to not have these types of vendor’s available teaching organic gardening and even selling vegetables in a farmer’s market. This would have been a great opportunity to introduce kids to the wonders of gardening, growing your own food and the benefits of plant based eating. Another idea for next year, cooking classes and demos. Many people want to eat healthier and are curious about plant based diets but have no idea how to actually make meals this way. I applaud the organizers for bringing an event like this to Buffalo but it needs a lot of work if it’s going to compete or come close to other Veg Fests held around the country.

Contrast this to the Taste of Williamsville at Island Park. This celebration of Williamsville, NY restaurants highlighted local eateries and didn’t include any chains; however it lacked selections of ethnic and vegetarian fare. Also held under a covered tent area, food vendors sold goodies but in a bigger, more open and cleaner area. All of the restaurants had sample dishes shown and banners were clearly visible from behind the tables.

There was a better visual presentation of food and included a pie bake off and food awards judged by local dignitaries.

However, this festival offered no options for people with food allergies or special diets. Many staff seemed unaware of ingredients used to make the dishes too. One restaurant had a beautiful looking greens and beans soup. I asked how it was made and was told it contained escarole and white beans. When I asked about the stock used I was told it was chicken based and “probably came from a can.” This lack of info did not encourage me to try a bowl. Was the chicken rubbed in butter? Was there any butter or dairy used to sauté the greens? The staff didn’t know and I certainly didn’t either. Here’s a suggestion for outdoor fests and restaurants in general: Provide staff with a binder listing ingredients including every spice, sauce, etc. This would allow participants to actually read the ingredients used and know right away if the item is safe for them to eat. Just listing a recipe name is not enough as that says nothing about the ingrediens used. Also, list clearly and plainly if any of the Top 8 food allergens are present in any of the dishes. This would go a long way to having someone with food allergies come to a food festival and even try your restaurant in the future.

While restaurants may think people with food allergies are a small part of the population, actually we aren’t. 15 million Americans have food allergies and that number is growing. Not only are you missing out on our business but also the friends and family who would eat out with us. When eating out with someone who has a food allergy, that person will choose the restaurant. Food is serious business and for those with food allergies it is also a matter of life since even the smallest amount of an allergen can be deadly.

Which food festivals have you attended this summer? What suggestions do you have for making these fests more food allergy friendly?

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