An increasing number of Tufts students have dietary restrictions, including gluten and dairy allergies, with more than 50 students registered for access to gluten-free pantries and refrigerators as of fall 2018, according to Director of Dining and Business Services Patti Klos.
Despite the growing demand for allergen-free meals, many students with dietary restrictions face limited options in dining halls. For first-year students who must enroll in the Premium Meal Plan, costing $6,626 in the 2018–2019 academic year, this situation has proven to be expensive and stressful.
Ariana Mathews, a first-year who has a gluten-free and vegetarian diet, said that it has been strenuous for her to find options in the dining halls.
“The reality of being gluten-free at college: it’s not accessible, it’s not affordable and it’s not okay. I have had celiac disease since I was one year old, and avoiding gluten has never been a choice,” Mathews said. “I have often found myself without options in the dining halls while having to pay extra outside of my meal plan to buy snacks from the bookstore … I know that Tufts Dining is trying to accommodate all dietary restrictions, but things can be better.”
Mathews said that while Dining Services’ gluten-free options appear great on paper, how they are actually manifest leaves much to be desired.
“When I came back from winter break, I got gluten-free bagel chips from Carmichael [Dining Center], which turned out to [have] expired early in November. I know that it would not have happened for regular food, for the staff would have checked up on them more regularly,” Mathews said. “While the dining staff and workers have been incredible here at Tufts … there should be more funding and attention dedicated to gluten-free and other allergen-free options at Tufts Dining.”
Talia Kee, a first-year student who is gluten-sensitive and eats a dairy-free diet, said that it can be even more challenging for students with multiple dietary restrictions to find food in the dining halls.
“I often found that gluten-free meals would have dairy products in them, or dairy-free products that have gluten, so I cannot get most meals from the hot plates at Dewick,” Kee said. “I usually just eat rice, chicken and vegetables for my main dish, so it would be great if they could improve on variety.”
Mathews added that food fact cards that list all menu items’ nutritional facts, ingredients and allergy information are sometimes mislabeled, which poses danger to students with severe food allergies.
“Sometimes, the food fact cards would be mixed up, and it can be very misleading if you do not pay careful attention to them,” Mathews said. “When I was reading the card for a soup in Dewick, it would say that the soup is gluten-free … but I could find an ingredient that contains gluten.”
Kee shared an experience similar to Mathews’. She mentioned that food fact cards often help her determine what she can and cannot eat.
“However, I’ve noticed that food fact cards’ information is not entirely accurate sometimes. Usually, I can tell if I won’t be able to eat it even if the information is not correct, but I’ve definitely run into that problem before,” Kee said.
With these challenges in mind, both Mathews and Kee said that first-year students with dietary restrictions should be exempt from purchasing the Premium Meal Plan.
“I definitely understand the logic behind the university wanting all [first-years] to have the unlimited meal plan so that everyone is eating well on campus, but I do think that students with dietary restrictions should be able to choose their own meal plan,” Mathews said.
“This [Premium Meal Plan] is definitely not fair for students with dietary restrictions because we cannot have over half of the foods offered in the dining halls. I do recognize, though, that it can be hard to single people out and exempt people from it because that can be abused by other people. If that is the case, Tufts Dining should provide comparable options and varieties for gluten-free students, since everyone is paying the same price,” Kee added.
While Klos understands where students are coming from, she noted that having first-year students eat their meals in the dining halls on the Premium Meal Plan is an integral part of the university’s residential life experience.
Klos also pointed to resources for students seeking allergen-free dining, such as the Alternative Meal Program and allergen-free pantries with dedicated toasters and panini presses.
“While we recognize that it can be difficult for some students with multiple dietary restrictions to find a variety of options available or food they like to have, we believe that the university has the ability and expertise in the area to better serve those students with better communication,” Klos said.
Klos shared that Dining Services plans on expanding allergen-free options in the dining halls. According to Klos, the university plans to renovate the overall serving area at Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center and replace its deli station with an allergen-free section over the summer, while expanding its outreach efforts.
“While student enrollment and demand have grown, our dining facilities have stayed the same over the past two decades. Our hope is that we will be better equipped to meet the student body’s growing demand for food safety on campus through this new platform,” Klos said.
Klos said that the renovation will increase the amount of dedicated cooking equipment in the dining hall to avoid cross-contamination.
“While we are still in the designing phase, our idea is to give a safe area in Dewick where students can have a greater variety of [allergen-free] food,” Klos said. “As of now, if you need to avoid gluten or shellfish, you cannot eat our French fries. We simply do not have enough fryers to prepare them separately free of [allergens] in the serving process. By having this platform, though, we can provide fresh food that is safer for students to consume. We will expand this platform to Carmichael Hall based on the student body’s feedback and comments.”
Klos added that this is a part of Dining Services’ effort to respond to feedback and ensure that students with dietary restrictions are satisfied with their dining options.
“In recent years, Tufts Dining has worked closely with … Student Accessibility Services, [the Office of Residential Life and Learning] and [the] Health [Service] to streamline the communication process between students and the dining staff. Unlike many other universities, Tufts also has our own dietitian, Julie Lampie, to facilitate the communication process,” Klos said. “While Lampie retired recently, she is still available for limited consulting. Until we find a new dietitian by the middle of this semester, students can still reach out to Julie or me with questions or feedback.”
Despite the comprehensive communication system in place, students noted that they were still largely unaware of the resources available to them. While Mathews set up an appointment with Lampie before she retired in December and discussed her meal plans at Tufts, Maya van Rosendaal — who is allergic to all nuts, sesame, coconut and buckwheat — has not communicated her allergies with the university.
“When I was touring schools, I paid close attention to whether the cafeterias had ingredients listed or not, which Tufts did, so I did not feel the need to reach out to the university,” van Rosendaal, a first-year, said. “Overall, I have been very satisfied with Tufts Dining, but I did not know that there is a dietitian at the school.”
Kee similarly noted that she was not aware of the resources available for her, such as the fact that a dietician had been available at Tufts Dining and that there were resources online on how to communicate her allergies with the university. Regarding this, Klos said Dining Services will consider expanding its outreach program through social media and plans to introduce the new dietitian during Orientation Week.
Moving forward, Klos said that on-campus dining options will continue to improve and incorporate the community’s feedback.
“Celiac disease and other dietary restrictions have grown rapidly recently, and Tufts Dining is expanding our programs and resources to meet the demand. Tufts Dining will actively seek out feedback from the community, and I am excited to introduce these new changes to the community,” Klos said.