Your university’s Dining Services is one of the most crucial tools in helping you adhere to the gluten-free diet throughout college. The efficiency and helpfulness of each school’s dining program varies and is unique; while I’ve had a fantastic experience at Rice University, I have also heard stories from other schools that chronicle less positive experiences. Whatever the case may be, I wanted to devote a blog post in my Celiac 101 series to a topic that deals with approaching and interacting with your school’s dining services. I recognize that every student will have a different experience, but I’m hoping this general outline can help you navigate through any problems that may arise!
Upon accepting an offer to a school
The best thing to do upon accepting an offer of admission to your school is to contact Dining Services and inquire about the possibility of gluten-free accommodation. I recommend sending an email to the head of Dining Services, or someone in a head position who has dealt with students who have allergies and intolerances before. Since most universities have a number of different dining halls (depending on your class schedule, you might eat at more than one dining hall), you want to speak with someone well acquainted with dining operations on a whole. In your email, you should explain why you require a gluten-free diet; it’s helpful to perhaps explain the severity of celiac disease, as well as the symptoms you experience if you consume gluten. Inquire as to how the university accommodates its gluten-free students; are there specific dining halls at the university that are better for celiacs? Based on the response you receive, you can begin to plan how you will manage your gluten-free diet in college. If Dining Services is unwilling to work with you, you can prepare by cooking your own food in an on or off-campus apartment with a kitchen, or by seeing if you can take legal action to protect yourself (see Section II). If your school is eager to help accommodate your diet, you can relax and prepare for academics, move-in and extra curricular activities.
Do you need Section 504 of the Americans With Disabilities Act?
I’ve touched upon the American with Disabilities Act in my previous post, Celiac Disease in the News: Discrimination Based on Our Diet, and as I mentioned, would advocate for classification. Though private universities that do not receive federal financial assistance are not subject to Section 504, they are, however, subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by institutions like universities. Having the classification would allow for legal protection were your school unwilling to accommodate your diet.
Hopefully, by the time you’ve arrived to your university, you have at least spoken to someone within your school’s dining department about your allergy or intolerance; during the time prior to your arrival, your point of contact has probably been someone on the administrative side of things. My recommendation for those arriving to campus is to immediately introduce yourself to the chefs and other staff members who work in the kitchen and establish a relationship with those who are preparing your food. Let the chefs see the face behind the allergy or intolerance! I like to ask the chefs about the food allergy training they’ve had at culinary school, conferences, or simply through prior experience.
Most importantly, thank your chefs and staff for the work they do to accommodate your diet and keep you safe; I am eternally grateful for the tremendous amount of work the chefs and dining staff does at Rice University to prepare meals that are free from gluten, as well as delicious. It is clear that the chefs put a time and thought into the meals they prepare, and I’m frequently treated to some desserts that are made by our pastry chefs specifically for students with celiac disease. As an intern with Rice’s Housing and Dining department, I frequent the kitchens, and it is not uncommon to see a chef preparing a special dinner or dessert for a student who is unable to eat the foods that are on the menu for that night.
If There is Accidental Contamination
If your school’s kitchen prepares a meal that is supposed to be gluten-free, but you end up getting sick, it’s important to open up dialogue with your school’s dining services and chefs as soon as possible. Though it might seem less stressful to not say anything when this occurs, having a conversation with your school’s dining services not only benefits you and the university but potentially keeps future students from having to go through a similar experience that ends up detrimental to their health. It’s important that in situations such as these, to take on a forgiving, rather than accusatory tone when speaking with the person who oversees the kitchen. My advice is to explain the specifics of the situation; was something labeled incorrectly, or was this an issue of cross-contamination? You should work with dining services to figure out where the problem occurred, and work on ways to prevent the mistake from occurring again!
How have you approached your school’s dining services? Share you experiences and recommendations with me below!