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A or F? For Students with Food Restrictions, Scoring College Dining is Personal

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

By Sheryl Harpel, Founder of Gluten Free Friends

When we survey college students with food allergies or celiac disease, we receive candid feedback on what it’s like to manage special diets as they rush between classes, study for exams, and socialize, often on tight budgets. Their responses reflect unique perspectives. On the same food line, one may be delighted with how food is labeled and organized, while another is concerned about potential cross-contamination.

Our GFF College Dining Survey captures individual dining experiences of students with varying food restrictions at a given point in time. Students at the same school don’t always give consistent feedback. In an extreme example, University of Pittsburgh students give dining grades ranging from A to F. All of these student experiences have weight, but what could cause such extreme variations in satisfaction in the same dining halls? Well, it’s personal!

Students' perspectives are influenced by…

1. Foods Being Avoided

If a college accommodates some food allergies better than others, students with different food restrictions could have very different experiences. Top 8 allergen-free dining lines aren’t necessarily helpful for students with less common food allergies, and a nut-free dining hall may not help a student with celiac avoid traces of gluten. The recent University of Pittsburgh graduate that failed Pitt’s dining program has a milk allergy and complained that Pitt “only focused on nut allergies.” Some students have additional constraints, such as trying to eat vegetarian, kosher, or halal, which further limits options.

2. Exposure Consequences

Students facing potentially life-threatening or debilitating reactions may need more assurances and attention than those with lesser reactions. Once confidence in dining safety is lost, it is not easily regained.

3. Financial Resources

Some students have the money to supplement when their needs aren’t met. They shop and eat in town, and get Amazon packages delivered. Others are fully dependent on feeding themselves from often mandatory meal plans. Not meeting dietary requirements for these students can lead to genuine food insecurity. Even though Brooklyn, NY, likely has great off-campus options, a Pratt Institute student reported having no money for food beyond what had been spent on the meal plan and “feeling food insecure[and] worrying about where my next meal will come from.”

4. Sensitivity

Some students are asymptomatic and may not even know when they’ve been exposed, while others react to the smallest of traces.

5. Self-Advocacy

Students who register their disabilities, seek accommodations, actively use school resources like campus dietitians, talk to dining managers, and advocate for improvements, may have a much different experience than students quietly trying to cope under the radar.

6. Expectations

Students have their own opinions about what dining services should be provided. For example, a Boston College sophomore with celiac gave BC Dining an A+, gladly pre-ordering and planning ahead to have safe gluten-free options, while a fellow student in a BC Heights article found it unworkable to give up that much flexibility. As dining improves, expectations can rise too. Top programs take student input and continue to raise the bar, as reported by a satisfied sophomore at Franklin and Marshall, “They are very accommodating and implement feedback quickly.”

7. Level of Understanding and Acceptance of Diagnosis

Students handle food restrictions differently, both physically and emotionally. Some students come to terms with the challenge when they are young, while others are still struggling with it when they head off to college.

We, therefore, encourage prospective students to ask, “Can I make this dining program work for me given my personal situation?” Listen to these students' stories and then investigate further to reach a very personal conclusion.

College students with food allergies or celiac, shine a light on your school’s dining program! Take the GFF College Dining Survey!


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