6 tips for the aid worker with dietary restrictions

A family prepares their food in Gunung Kijang, Riau Islands Province, Indonesia. How can aid workers successfully navigate food restrictions in unfamiliar countries? Photo by: Asian Development Bank / CC BY

There’s a fine — and difficult to find — line between refusing unfamiliar food for fear of getting sick or taking a bite to show respect and friendship.

It’s a situation in which many aid workers and international volunteers find themselves when visiting colleagues in a new setting, attending a community dinner or living with a host family. You’ve certainly heard one or two stories of aid workers battling upset stomachs, becoming intolerant to certain food items or requiring emergency medical attention after ingesting a meal they didn’t know contained peanuts. One of those stories might even be yours. 

While adhering to food preferences or intolerances is a luxury — and cannot compare to the challenges many of the beneficiaries that aid workers serve face when it comes to food security —  it is still a reality many aid workers have to navigate.

One common practice shared by seasoned aid workers and volunteers is sending word to colleagues in advance of deployment of food restrictions or choices to spare them both the trouble later on. Nothing is more awkward than colleagues preparing lechon, a staple Filipino food for special occasions, upon your arrival in Philippines only to learn you’re vegan, or your host family preparing bread-based dinner with no knowledge of your gluten intolerance.

But similar scenarios continue to happen in the field, and aid workers sometimes feel there are only two options: either refuse the food and risk offending the offerer, or eat it to show respect and suffer the consequences later.

It doesn’t always have to be an either-or situation, said Alexandra Kuznetsov, a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso from 2011-2013.

“One way I learned to overcome this challenge was simply telling the truth,” she said.

In her case, Kuznetsov told her host family and friends in Burkina Faso that certain types of food, like meat, fish, milk, uncooked fruits and vegetables, yogurt and pump water gave her a stomachache. She didn’t have any food allergies or intolerance — although admittedly an occasional vegetarian — but she suspected the way food was prepared locally as the culprit behind her stomach problems.

The now program manager for the American Academy of Pediatrics initially found it difficult to explain her circumstances, worried that it may come across as disrespectful, but she received only understanding from her host family and others in the village. In addition, it opened doors of communication and helped her share her own knowledge of handling food prior to cooking.

But honesty may not always do the trick. When dealing with families or individuals for the first time, Kuznetsov applied what she learned from her trainings at the Peace Corps — “fake drink or eat.”

“For example, when arriving in neighboring villages, I was often offered ‘welcome water.’ At first I drank it to show respect, but after becoming repeatedly sick I simply tipped the cup to my lips but didn't necessarily drink the water,” she said.

Kuznetsov’s fake-it strategy echoes that of an aid worker blogger, a vegetarian who wrote about his food adventures in a blog titled The Vegan Nomad. During his time working in Afghanistan, he recalled how, running out of excuses not to eat Afghan kebabs, he hid them under a “mountain of rice” while people’s attention was on another colleague.

How useful their strategies are will depend on execution and the situation one is in. But for those who don’t want to go to such effort to conceal their food preferences, here are a few lessons from Kuznetsov and other aid workers who’ve been there.

1. Be upfront.

Extra tip: Avoiding meat and most animal products is not too difficult in rural villages in Burkina Faso, where they are “hard to find,” according to Kuznetsov. But watch out during holidays, like Ramadan or Tibaski, as sheep is traditionally killed and eaten in most villages, she said.

Kuznetsov already advised honesty with your host family or people you’ll be working with in the field. But you should extend it to the organization you’re applying to. Some if not all should be able to tell whether the country you will be deployed can accommodate your food restrictions or lifestyle; others may even help you plan your diet.

Peace Corps Wiki can be a good resource for those wishing to serve under the program. It has a “medical restrictions” page, compiled via surveys from present and former Peace Corps volunteers, listing medical conditions and the countries that can and can’t accommodate those suffering from those conditions. For example, those with mild shrimp allergy may be able to serve in Albania, but they would find a hard time avoiding shellfish in the Pacific islands. The Philippines and Guatemala meanwhile are recommended destinations for those following a gluten-free diet, but the list does not recommend a number of countries in West Africa, such as Guinea, Niger and Mali.

It is still best however to direct any queries or disclose your situation to the appropriate organization. Peace Corps requires all applicants undergo medical screening before deployment, which helps the organization assess an applicant’s capacity to perform during the mission while at the same time ensuring his or her safety. Kuznetsov said in her experience, applicants with peanut allergy are usually not sent by the Peace Corps to West Africa, as “it is virtually impossible to not eat something that hasn't come into contact with peanuts and somebody with this allergy would have gotten seriously ill living” in the region.

2. Cook your own food.

The beauty with home cooked meals is that they are your own choice, and you know the ingredients you’re putting in your food.

Rohanna Law, a training manager for the Voluntary Services Overseas U.K., shared this advice. She has celiac disease and must also avoid seafood, oranges and peppers.

But one needs to consider a few things to make this work: market accessibility, ingredient availability, cost and time. During Law’s time in Malawi in 2007, she found her options were limited to sweet potatoes, a few vegetables and a bit of meat. The nearest supermarket where she could buy a host of ingredients, including imported food items, was about 30 to 40 minutes away by bus.

One should also consider the complexity in preparing a meal. In her case, she was living with a host family who had very limited kitchen space and supplies.

3. Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask.

The Internet is teeming with blogs, websites and other platforms where aid workers often talk about their experience in the field. But if you’re having trouble navigating your way online, don’t be shy to ask colleagues, your organization or people who used to work in your country of destination on how they maintained their vegetarian diet or avoided certain food ingredients.

Kuznetsov found herself clutching a cookbook put together by past and present volunteers in Burkina Faso. The book contained recipes that she said are “more familiar to our own palettes” but using local ingredients.

“I used that to sort of cook on my own, but I only used it to give me general ideas and then I cooked my own meals based on what was available in my village and the kinds of tools and resources [present],” she said.

Sometimes she would also check on what other volunteers were cooking and replicate it.

4. Learn the local language, or have a handy multilingual guide book — or a colleague.

The first step to avoiding misunderstandings with colleagues or the community you’ll be staying in is to communicate your food choices or restrictions. But, how do you explain you have celiac disease, for example, when you don’t speak the language?

Extra tip: Some places where vegan aid workers may find it easy to follow their diet are in Cambodia, India and Thailand, as per Ingersoll’s experience. Just make sure you make it clear you don’t eat fish or fish sauce.

Law suffered after a dinner host misunderstood her explanation that she couldn’t eat white rice — which ended up being a large part of the meal.

Explaining in the local language can up one’s chances of success. Law said it helped to have a local colleague explain to her host family about her food intolerance, as “they can use the right language and terminology.”

Practicing vegan Deb Ingersoll, Catholic Relief Services’ deputy head of programs in Gaza, meanwhile, swears by a guide book she found during a trip in Paris that contains information on what people who go vegan do and don’t eat in 60 different languages.

“In person, I find that if I start a discussion around plants as food and focus more on what I do eat, people are so curious they do their best to accommodate,” she said. “I always try to ask about local plant based meal options, spices and flavors.”

5. Take caution.

Lydia Bowden, a university student in London, volunteered in the summer of 2014 in a rural village in Kwara state, Nigeria, under VSO. She ate whatever her host family offered, except for meat, but felt continuously bloated.

“I just thought, OK, the food is quite different here. And then I’m putting a little bit of weight, because I’m not doing exercise when back home I usually exercise almost every day. So I thought that’s probably why, so I didn’t really worry about it,” she said.

When she returned home three months later, she went back to her normal eating and exercise habits, but still felt different. Alarmed, she went to see a doctor, who recommended for her to go on a diet that mostly avoided gluten, like bread and pasta.

Today she feels healthier, but still feels her body reacts differently to food than before her volunteering experience.

Kuznetsov had a similar experience, developing mild lactose intolerance following her mission in Burkina Faso, where she had very little dairy for more than two years.

6. Think outside the box.

Many of the aid workers Devex spoke to mentioned being careful not to offend their host families or the local community they worked in. And at the end of the day, getting to know the people and the culture — despite any setbacks — is a huge positive of the job.

Kuznetsov learned from experience and through her interactions with other volunteers that there are other ways to show respect besides eating the food offered on the table, such as bringing gifts over dinner or offering to cook instead.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.