Voicing Concerns Made Dining Safer for One Gluten-Free College Student

By Shelby Kaho

Choosing the right college can be tough, especially with each college offering different academics, athletics, people, and so many other things to take into consideration. For me, I also had one other very big thing to take into consideration: my gluten free diet. Could the dining hall accommodate my needs?

I decided on a small liberal arts school about an hour and a half away from home. I loved the atmosphere and how comfortable I felt there. Since it was a small campus where you could really get to know everyone, I had confidence that I could work out a plan with the dining hall to make sure my food was safe. The first day I arrived on campus, I sent an email to the dining director of operations explaining my situation and concerns about getting safe gluten-free meals. I also talked to the sous chef and asked what was safe. While they promised me gluten-free meals when I visited the campus before deciding to attend, their understanding of what gluten free really means was inaccurate. They were both very helpful and willing to do whatever I needed, which gave me hope for being able to get safe, reliable meals.

For about the first month, however, I ended up eating plain, bunless burgers, plain rice (when available), and steamed vegetables. Sometimes I would get lucky and be able to track someone down to make something special for me such as plain chicken or a gluten free pizza, but that was more of a hassle than anything. Not to mention the cross contamination issues I observed while watching through the glass as my food was being prepared. The chicken was cooked on the same crumb riddled flat top that was used to cook grilled cheese and the pizza was prepared in the same area as the regular, gluten containing pizzas, and cooking utensils were also used for gluten-containing foods. So, following my motto “when I doubt, go without,” I would always go back and grab a hamburger patty, no bun, which was prepared on a grill that was used for nothing else.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the kitchen staff didn’t care or were lazy; they simply weren’t properly educated. After contacting the dining manager several times, I was able to meet with him and talk about my concerns. He was eager to help and wrote down all of my suggestions. After this, I went through the kitchen and did a “gluten free audit,” finding and pointing out problem areas as well as reading labels determining what was safe. After this I saw immediate progress.

My dining hall now has a dedicated fryer, readily available gf desserts, and the staff are well aware of the procedures that need to be followed, so I can eat without fear. As of now, it’s still a work in progress. I have confidence that after working closely with the dining staff, we can make gluten free dining simple and painless for everyone. I hope to set up a better plan for gf meals because now I just ask for whatever I want and they make it, but this can take a while and with the rest of the meals being buffet style, my friends usually end up waiting on me. When I want something fast, I go back to the old standby, plain burgers. The cook at the grill jokingly asks “The usual?” and knows to put two on a plate when he sees me walk up. I’m lucky the staff is so accommodating and willing to help. It makes things a lot less stressful.

Shelby’s Quick Tips

  • Ask questions! Never eat something you are unsure of. It isn’t worth the risk.
  • Get involved! Work with the dining hall to fix problem areas. Make sure the staff is aware of your needs; they’re there to help you!
  • Start a gluten free club! This is a great way to bring people together and work to make everyone’s college experience better.

Shelby Kaho is a college sophomore who has lived gluten-free for the last six years. She blogs at CeliacsInTheHouse.com and the blog OneHurdle. You can read more about her college dining experiences at the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness site.

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