Eating Gluten Free at College

Having Celiac Disease in college is a challenge and one that I was able to overcome. For many students picking a college, food is not the deciding factor. They are aware that college food is college food no matter where you go. For someone with Celiac Disease however it is an extra challenge and adjustment. I was fortunate enough to do the Pre College Program at Emory which exposed me to my dining choices. The chef had to make a special meal for me but that was not ideal. He didn’t understand that Celiacs have a sensitive stomach and that I could not tolerate spicy food. Towards the end of my two week visit I started avoiding the dining hall and just going for the salad bar. I lost a lot of weight during the program and my mom made me promise that if I went to Emory for college that I would have to better explain my sensitivities to the chef to ensure I had more than just salad for dinner every night.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to! During the year between my pre-college summer and freshman year Gluten Free became a lot more common, to the point that they were going to put a Gluten Free station in the dining hall! It took a lot of learning and adjustments that first year but Emory tried their hardest! They held focus groups with the gluten free students to find out what was working, what didn’t work, and what kind of food we wanted to eat. We also were able to provide feedback in terms of the best brands of bread to buy, the cereals, etc because most of us had our allergies for many years. This also allowed me to get to know other gluten free students, especially those who had cars and could take me to the grocery store if I needed to, because they understood my situation.

In the dining hall itself, someone would always be watching the Gluten Free station to make sure only those students who were gluten free were eating there. (I even got yelled at a few times for taking food from the gluten free station if I had other food on my tray) There were separate fridges, microwaves, and toasters to avoid as much cross contamination as possible. They had cards at the beginning of each semester that we had to pick up an Emory nutritionist that said our allergies were registered with the school and that we had permission to eat at the station. Most of the workers would start to recognize you after a few weeks, but the first few weeks of each semester they were extremely helpful. There was also one chef dedicated to the gluten free station and she would prepare the food in a separate section of the kitchen to avoid any cross contamination. She was always looking out for us. She would bake us brownies and put together bags of gluten free trail mix each day. During midterms and finals would bake double the amount of brownies and double the amount of snacks so we could take stuff to the library.

During my freshman year I was only glutened once and considering the dining hall serves thousands of students a day I would say that is pretty incredible. It was the second month of the gluten free station’s existence and I was glutened because the person who monitors the gluten free station was out sick that day. One worker didn’t understand what gluten is and put regular pasta out at the gluten free station. I realized very quickly that something was not right when I sat down at the table and looked around and saw that my friends (who were not gluten free) were eating the exact same shape and consistency of pasta. I immediately stopped eating it and had a salad instead. As soon as Emory realized the mistake, they emailed all the gluten free students warning them of the mix up and alerting us all that they were going to make a better effort to educate all of the staff on the gluten free station so it never happens again.

During that year, I became friendly with the nutritionist that worked with Emory Dining to provide feedback and suggestions. I discussed with them a few different ideas in order to avoid mix ups. One suggestion I made was when serving something like pasta, they should put an unopened uncooked bag out for students to see what the pasta should look like. People can read the ingredients on the bag to ensure it is gluten free and if the bag contains penne and spaghetti is out at the station, they can immediately know that something is wrong and alert a manager. They wouldn’t do that for fear of students stealing the uncooked pasta, but they place a menu out each day so students know what is supposed to be served. They have also made an effort to make something different from the regular stations to avoid any mix ups. For example if they are serving pasta at the regular station, it will be beef at the gluten free station, that way if pasta is sitting out and the menu says beef, there is also a way to identify a possible mix up.

As I have become older, I have started to cook more of my meals and eat less at the dining hall, but each time I check in, they tell me more and more students are registering a gluten allergy which not only improves the quality of the food but increases the selection. The food doesn’t sit out for hours because the higher demand forces them to change it out. Emory will be getting a new dining provider this summer but I am confident that with the amount of gluten allergies registered at Emory, the quality of the Gluten Free station will only improve!