Photo by Flickr user Seattle.roamer. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The Free Food

As Oculus got ready to unveil its virtual-reality Rift headset at E3 recently, an acquaintance of mine tweeted a photo from the breakfast buffet Oculus set out for attendees. I did what I often do when confronted with free food at press conferences or other events: I scoped out the scene, partly to see what was on offer, partly to find out whether it included anything I could eat.

At first glance, the Oculus breakfast bar looked pretty lavish, with several platters piled high with goodies and four or five trays ready for hot food. It turned out to be mostly pastries: bagels, croissants, rolls; the usual. There was half a platter of what looked like blackberries and raspberries, but the other half featured something that resembled pigs in blankets — it was hard to tell from the pixelated photo. More bread, at any rate.

I have an odd collection of food sensitivities and allergies, including gluten, eggs, most melon, bananas, pineapple and asparagus, which makes me prone to close inspection of the food offerings. I’ve also worked as a journalist for much of the past 20 years, where I’ve seen my fair share of freebie snack platters. Even before I discovered the bulk of my food sensitivities, I was always on the fence about whether to take advantage of these kinds of hand-outs. On the one hand, journalists aren’t supposed to accept anything from sources that could be perceived as a bribe or a gift that would curry favor. On the other hand, most reporters are constantly broke and hungry, making it difficult to turn down free food.

A friend of mine wrote about this dilemma after visiting Austria to cover the Salzburg 2014 Olympic bid. “In order to avoid even the appearance of bias, we’ve invented all kinds of silly rules for ourselves. One of these cardinal rules is never eat the free food. When going out for a meal or even a coffee we pay for everyone at the table or at least for ourselves. We are not a guest, we are a professional doing a job.”

But the Austrians spared no expense pampering the journalists, including plenty of delicious local cuisine, and ultimately he succumbed.

When I asked other journalist friends whether they take advantage of such edible offerings, they were quite divided. Several said they tried not to eat the food at event buffets, either out of a concern for their professional ethics or because they generally feel strange letting others treat them to meals. Others said that as long as the food didn’t cost much, or they were covering an all-day event and alternatives weren’t easy to come by, then they’d go for it. When it looked like the food would otherwise be thrown out or taken home by the catering staff — who (let’s face it) probably make more per hour than the reporters — they’d dig in. One friend said he not only snacked at events, but often wrapped up extra to take home. Another said that if his objectivity could be bought with a cookie, maybe he needed to find another line of work.

That last sentiment lines up pretty closely with my own. I made less than $20,000 a year in my first full-time journalism job (and this wasn’t long enough ago that $20K was a decent salary), so I took advantage of every opportunity not to spend money on food. I ate the snacks at press conferences, awards luncheons and community meetings. I let a couple of sources buy me lunch, knowing a meal wasn’t going to make me go easy on them. I went out to free dinners numerous times with our dining columnist, who brought guests along as an opportunity to sample more dishes at each restaurant. I may have been making peanuts, but I was a journalist writing about Marin County’s newsmakers, and I often ate well above my station as a result.

My approach changed drastically when I learned that I was sensitive to gluten and many of the other foods I mentioned earlier. The bulk of the snacks offered at press events, such as the Oculus spread, are gluten-based: crackers, breads, bagels, cookies and so on. I’m sensitive enough to gluten that I’ll get sick if I eat something that’s gotten crumbs on it, which means those pretty platters of cheese interleaved with crackers make the cheese off-limits. Fruit is sometimes a decent alternative, but most of the fruit trays at these events contain melon or pineapple mixed with everything else. These days, when I scope out the snack table, I often quickly turn away because there’s nothing I can safely eat.

This situation makes it easier for me to look like I’m sticking by some impartiality-driven vow to avoid the free food. But all that goes out the window when event planners are thoughtful enough to provide more options. I recently attended a confirmation hearing for a California Supreme Court judge, which drew a large crowd of regional judges, staff and press. Outside the auditorium where the hearing took place, the tables held individual cups filled with crudités, trays of chocolate-covered strawberries and other goodies. Cheese only touched other cheese. Wheat-based and gluten-free crackers sat in their own separate bowls, where they wouldn’t mingle crumbs. And there wasn’t a smidge of melon or pineapple in sight.

Ever since I discovered my gluten sensitivity, I’ve learned to go out of my way to show appreciation for those who feed me safely. Attentive restaurant staffers get larger tips, and I eat gratefully when family or friends make me allergen-free foods. So when faced with a spread like the one at the court, I dug right in without giving a thought to ethics or bias. I wanted to show them that this was how you cater an event, given that people have different dietary needs. Granted, probably nobody was paying much attention to the random journalist going back for seconds on crackers and strawberries, but I hope they noticed as they cleaned up that little was left behind.

Of course, in the world of public-relations schmooze and free bagels, journalists can’t exactly ask anyone to cater to their special diets. Most of the time, I’m ultimately grateful I can’t eat what’s on those tables because most of it’s junk food. But in the land of tech elites and their expensive foodie tastes — where I still barely make a living wage — it’s nice to hungrily come across a free spread and discover that my only dilemma is an ethical one.