The Best Four Years of Their Lives?
For Gluten Free Students, College Choice Largely Impacts Quality of Life
If you have a son or daughter who has celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and is approaching college age, you may be fraught with worry. Will they be able to safely follow their gluten-free diet and navigate the dining options at their college of choice?
I have to confess that, although my own celiac son just turned 10, I already think about the college search process and how his diet might impact his decision. What if the school he’d like to attend just doesn’t “get it” regarding how to prepare a safe gluten-free meal? Will he have enough variety of gluten-free foods to sustain him for three meals per day over four years?
Clearly, college presents a unique set of circumstances. Students typically have only a limited number of venues for on-campus dining. Even if a student has the luxury of having an apartment with a kitchen, eating at “home” is a lot of work for a busy college student, not to mention socially isolating. Missing out on meals in the dining hall means missing out on a great opportunity to meet and bond with fellow students.
To ensure that your student has the best possible college experience, here are some tips to keep in mind:
• Be proactive. Speak with the dining services director at the colleges you’re considering. You’ll want to discuss the products they purchase, how meals are prepared, and the degree of training they provide to their staff. Have a meal or two on campus when visiting so you can experience the environment first-hand.
• Encourage your son or daughter to maintain an ongoing relationship with someone from dining services who is designated as the gluten-free “point person” for questions and feedback.
• Find out if the school will agree to purchase favorite gluten-free items to keep on hand for your child and others following gluten-free diets. Many colleges even designate a separate area where gluten-free students can access snacks and other refrigerated and frozen items they request.
• Encourage your college student to seek out a glutenfree student group where he or she will meet new friends and have ongoing support. If there isn’t such a group, maybe your son or daughter could start one.
Colleges run the gamut from those that eagerly serve students with varying food sensitivities to those that don’t really understand the intricacies in providing safe, gluten-free meals. It’s important for you and your child to learn as much as you can as you wade through the choices of colleges. That’s why we recently added a section called Gluten Free College Reviews to our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite. It enables gluten-free college students to share their feedback about the dining options at their college with others, including prospective students.
Already, a few colleges shine. Reviews of Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State, and DePauw show that, if the right people with the right attitude are at the helm, gluten-free students can have a fantastic experience. On the flip side, one recent reviewer mentioned her need to transfer colleges because the meals at her university were continually making her sick.
Julie Bourne, a celiac college blogger who publishes The Campus Celiac blog (www.thecampusceliac.wordpress.com) and also writes a monthly column for our Gluten Free
Travel Blog (www.glutenfreetravelblog.typepad.com), has had an experience that lies somewhere in the middle. She attends the University of Denver in Colorado. Unfortunately, Julie’s celiac diagnosis came just one week before the start of her freshman year. Therefore, her special dietary needs were not a factor when making her college choice. In hindsight, she says, “Had I been diagnosed a year or so earlier, it would have been a large factor.”
Julie believes it’s the dining hall staff’s responsibility at any university to provide healthy variety—not just fruit and salads—for students following gluten-free diets. She also stressed the importance of the staff’s knowledge of cross contamination risks and precautions. For her first two years on campus, she played it “excessively safe,” because she didn’t want to let a simple case of cross contamination put her out of commission for an entire week.
This past year, since she was a junior, Julie was allowed to live off campus, which gave her more control and variety when planning meals. She also has learned which restaurants off campus can be trusted to provide safe gluten-free meals and regularly reviews them on GlutenFreeTravelSite.
Chynna Foucek, a rising junior at Rice University in Houston, Texas, has had a particularly good gluten-free experience over the past two years, especially given the fact that she made her college choice based exclusively on the academic merits of the institution and knew nothing about how they would be able to accommodate her diet. Chynna is fortunate that the university continues to improve its gluten-free offerings, since on-campus students must have a 19 meal/week meal plan.
Chynna confirms Rice University has plenty to offer, and that they label what menu items are gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan. “Because almost every dining hall on campus has gluten-free options, I am not restricted in where I can eat. There is no need for advance notice, although the chefs are accessible and always willing to accommodate requests.” One chef even made an entire gluten-free flourless cake for Chynna as a surprise.
So what’s her advice to new college students who are glutenfree? Speak up. “Students might not know that they should go speak with a chef, or might even be too embarrassed or intimidated to do so.” Chynna would ideally like to see an orientation week mentor, such as a gluten-free upperclassman, assigned to new students to act as an advisor or liaison with the chefs.
One large university that does an especially good job serving their gluten-free student body is North Carolina State University in Raleigh. According to university dining dietitian Lisa Eberhart, NC State has had a strong gluten-free program for over two years, and they “continue to identify gluten-free options for students and plan menus for the new venues with allergies and special needs in mind.” The goal is to have as many gluten-free choices at each meal as possible. In fact, Lisa says she wants to make NC State the most allergy-friendly university in the country.
When a student initially signs up for NC State’s meal plan, they’re asked if they have any allergies or if they are vegan or vegetarian. Lisa often gets contacted prior to a new student’s campus orientation to talk about the gluten-free options. She typically walks the student around to show them how to navigate the campus dining options and gives them a demonstration of the helpful website where daily meals are posted.
NC State gets the word out to gluten-free students about their daily meal choices with the help of technology. An iPad at each dining hall sorts the meals each day based on allergens, so students can see the options before purchasing meals. The dining halls also posts QR codes that students can scan with their smart phones to learn which allergens are present in particular menu items.
Bill Claypool, Executive Chef at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, works closely with staff dietician Dianne Davis, RD, and other dining service team members to offer meals prepared specifically by a cook trained in gluten-free procedures. As Bill stated, “It’s vitally important that these students receive safe, tasty, and nutritious food three or more times a day, seven days a week.” The staff strives to prepare gluten-free meals similar to the day’s “regular” menu selections with strict safeguards in place to prevent cross contamination.
All new students are sent a form in their acceptance package that asks about any dietary restrictions. There’s a group meeting for students on gluten-free and other special diets during orientation. “The chef, manager, and dietitian also meet one-on-one with students as needed,” Dianne said.
Vanderbilt is proactive about posting gluten-free dining information on their website and on a dedicated Facebook page. Students are also given email addresses and cell phone numbers for the chef, managers, and supervisors in the two largest dining halls. They are encouraged to contact a member of the team to discuss the day’s gluten-free choices after reviewing the menus online. While ordering ahead is not necessary, it eliminates wait time so students can maximize their time with friends in the dining hall, instead of waiting for their meal.
Clearly, if all universities begin following the lead of NC State and Vanderbilt, our gluten-free college students will certainly be in good hands in the years to come!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.
Review Your College:
To submit a review of your college dining experience, go to “SUBMIT REVIEW” on GlutenFreeTravelSite (www.glutenfreetravelsite.com/submit.php) and follow the prompts from there, choosing “College” as the type of venue.