NCA attended the Gluten-Free & Allergy-Friendly College Food Service Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in May. Our Executive Director Lee Graham took to the stage with two college students with celiac disease to talk about NCA’s 2016 survey and provide the student perspective.
The conference was very insightful. A key point was that, as demonstrated by the Lesley University Agreement, celiac disease and food allergies constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and colleges MUST make reasonable accommodations to provide suitable food. That said, there is clearly a lot of variety in terms of where colleges are in their journey to achieve this goal.
Discussions covered not only how colleges could provide safe food, but how it needs to be varied and nutritious. Also important is how the availability of food fits in with the college experience, for example, not having to wait, not having to go to a different place to your friends.
Several of the colleges talked about apps they had developed which showed students what foods were available on a given day at a given dining hall, together with all the ingredients and allergy information (including in many cases gluten). Technology was also being used to allow pre-ordering of food so it could be picked up in a timely fashion.
The biggest frustration that the colleges expressed was lack of student engagement. They felt that close communication between the student and the foodservice was the key to a successful experience, but that too often students did not want to engage. The unwillingness of young students to stand out as being different from their new friends was felt to be a key factor in this.
So, if you are trying to find a college that will do a good job of providing safe food what are the key things you should do?
- Talk to the food service. Ask them about what they do to accommodate dietary restrictions. Be specific: ask about variety of food, how many places on campus you will be able to get safe food, how they train staff, what they do to avoid cross contact, how are they utilizing technology, what you should do if something makes you sick. Look for places who actually doing a good job now, not places that could hypothetically do it.
- Ask for a tour, and a meal. The food services who were doing a good job said they would be delighted to show prospective students around and show them what they are doing. In fact, they welcomed the opportunity to do so.
- Ask to speak to a student who has the same dietary restriction as you, and discuss their experience.
Investing the time upfront may be frustrating, particularly if some of your new friends are not having to do the same thing. However, ultimately being able to get safe food in a way that fits in with your lifestyle will be a key factor in the quality of your college experience.
Once You've Decided
- Tell all the relevant departments. Just because you put you have celiac disease on your housing form, does not mean that the food service will know, colleges are restricted in terms of how they share medical information.
- Talk to the Food Services Director, and the mangers of the different food service areas. Make friends with the staff. Talk to them about problems. And not just problems in terms of the fact you are getting sick, also if you are having to wait for food, are not getting a good variety, are having trouble eating at the same place as your friends.
- Connect with other students. If there is a support group on campus, touch base. It will give you a forum to share experiences, and is another great way to make friends!