This post has grown out of a confluence of my feelings about a number of events/stories I've heard, and, as such, not all the arguments/questions herein apply to any one incident. This is kind of long post, but I need to get this off my chest. It'll help me sleep better...
When you are organizing a conference, if you ask attendees if they have any special dietary restrictions and they, in turn, apprise you of them, you have implied that you will work to accommodate them, ensuring that there are a few dishes that they can eat.
You do not, however, allow those without said dietary restrictions to eat, as I'll call it to be succinct, the "safe" foods until those with dietary restrictions have gotten their portions. That's not to say serve them first. Rather, serve them the safe foods before putting them out for everyone else (who, in the meantime, has been eating the foods that off-limits for those with dietary restrictions.) Would you risk peanut-eaters eating all the nut-free dishes before those with peanut allergies--those who (bear with me--I know this will tend to exaggeration, but I'm making a point) can't eat any of the other dishes, which, for some reason, all contain peanuts, peanut butter, or peanut oil--had a chance get a portion of what they can safely eat? Would you allow all those not adhering to a Kosher diet to eat all the Kosher food before those who are Kosher get their fill? No, you wouldn't.
So why, then, would you allow meat-eaters to eat the vegan/vegetarian dishes? Is it accommodating to just set out animal-free options, allowing them to be fair-game? No, it's not, for the simple fact that, as with the nut-sensitive and Kosher in the examples above, the vegetarians and vegans can't eat most of the other foods set out.
Set the safe foods in another room, bringing them to the main room after those with dietary restrictions have served themselves. Or, if you don't want to do that, at least label them as "nut-free," "Kosher," or "vegan"! (Crazy me, I still hold on to hope that some people have a modicum of consideration for people other than themselves.) But don't lump them in with the rest of the food where they can be quickly consumed by those who don't have dietary restrictions, leaving those who do have them hungry! That is not accommodating.
And for the record, when it comes to vegetarians and vegans, neither is tossing together a few varieties of lettuce leaves in a bowl, or setting out some crudites and dip.
So when I offer to donate to your conference not one, but two batches (serving six people each) of vegan tofu chili--SPECIFICALLY so people with dietary restrictions like myself can have something substantial to eat--you damn well better make sure the veggies get first crack at it!
I can't tell you the number of receptions that I've attended that have had little more than lettuce and carrot sticks--both which were significantly picked-over by the time my spot in line aligned with their location on the table--for people like myself to eat. The difference with these receptions is that those who were organizing them didn't ask me about dietary restrictions, so I cannot reasonably hold them to the same standard of accommodation as those conference organizers I mentioned who, I believe, did ask.
If I can, momentarily, speak for all conference-attending veggies, we're not asking that you serve us a five-course vegan dinner. We just want the same thing as anyone without our dietary restrictions: to finish lunch break and head back into panel discussions with our bellies feeling satisfied! You'd give that consideration to someone with food allergies, or religious dietary restrictions. Should we, because we've chosen this lifestyle for ethical reasons, be denied the same consideration? (As an aside, many people also choose vegetarianism for health reasons--not entirely unlike why someone would choose not to eat a food to which they're allergic.) Why should allergies and religious conviction be privileged?