Updated: Apr 30, 2019
NEWS FLASH 2/21/2019!!:
It is a bummer that celiac has to factor at all into your college search. Even though it’s been 7 years since Lesley University was found to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for forcing kids with celiac disease to be on a meal plan and then not feeding them, colleges are having mixed results meeting the gluten-free challenge. It is striking how varied the success rate has been.
After completing the Beyond Celiac GREAT Schools, Colleges, & Camps Training, I gained an increased appreciation for how hard it is for dining halls to get this right and then keep it that way. (GREAT stands for Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training.) Even once schools and food service companies go through terrific programs like GREAT or AllerTrain and establish good protocols, if ongoing training and auditing is not in place, staff turnover can undo all that hard work. The dining hall is only as safe as its weakest link.
Below are some sample quotes from Gluten Free Travel Site just to give you a sense of how varied the experience can be. Please note that most colleges were reviewed by only one student at a single point in time, so research more fully before making any conclusions. (See our Celiac College Survey Responses for additional on-the-ground student feedback. We are so excited about our survey initiative and will continue to post as surveys are received!)
“Auburn has a dedicated Gluten-free only Diner on campus- the first one in the country!”
Auburn University, AL
“... does not have an official gluten free menu but the dining services have been willing to work with me. ...Eating gluten free at college has turned out easier than I expected.”
Baylor University, TX
“Great meal service, amazing gluten free options for those who are Gluten Free, Celiac, and intolerant.”
Bennington College, VT
“...GREAT for gluten free students!”
Brown University, RI
“Risley Dining Room ... now certified 100% gluten-free, tree-nut-free, and peanut-free.”
Cornell University, NY
“I am impressed with the relationships the chefs are able to develop with students...
I received an email saying that he had made an entire flourless cake for me and wanted me to come pick it up.”
Rice University, TX
“...gluten-free dining facilities are A+....Overall, the school provides healthy delicious meals that make being gluten-free in college very easy”
Tulane University, LA
“...lots of support for gluten free diets for its students.”
“If it was not for my mom fixing and freezing meals for me,
I would be going to bed hungry on a regular basis.”
College of the Ozarks, MO
“Having worked as a student worker with dining services, I was well aware that there is no allergy awareness for staff. There is no effort to prevent cross contamination for any student, including even simply changing gloves.”
Colorado College, CO
“I have visited other schools which have amazing gluten free dining areas. Not here!!!” University of Virginia, VA
“It took almost three months of pressuring from me, the Director of Disability Services, and my mother ...to get chefs and staff trained on how to serve gluten-free. My biggest piece of advice is to ADVOCATE. Don't be afraid of kicking ass to get what you want.”
Bard College, NY
“...once I moved in and was required to purchase a meal plan,
I realized there was not much I could eat.”
Appalachian State University, NC
“Before choosing this college my mother and I interviewed the Head Chef on 3 separate visits and was assured I would receive gluten free meals.... constantly getting sick, often sick enough to require Emergency Room visits.” “Cross contamination is a nightmare, and I continue to get sick.”
Butler University, IN
So what can students with celiac disease do when selecting a school to set themselves up for safe and satisfying dining? Just like an artistic student checks out the studios, and a science student explores the labs, you need to seriously add the dining factor. Keep track of your impressions of how each college handles gluten on your phone or in a binder, as they start blending into each other after you visit a few.
You will likely be eating most meals in the dining hall at least for the first year. Even if you decide to select the college regardless, you should at least know what you are up against. On most tours, you will be told there are “lots of gluten-free options” and you will see a corner with a toaster and a loaf of Udis. How do you get the real picture of the gluten-free dining experience? Below are some suggestions. Dive deep again on accepted student days. If you are going early decision, you need to do your research early too!
To get a much more specific perspective, ask the guide if she has any good friends there with celiac disease or other severe food allergies and if yes, how he manages the dining situation, or even better, if he could talk to you. It’s also good to understand your housing options. How soon can you have a kitchen, or at least access to a fridge and a microwave?
The Dining Hall
For any schools you are seriously considering, go back to the dining hall after the tour. Ideally, try to eat there. Talk to the dining staff and see how well they can show you what is safe to eat. If possible, e-mail head chefs ahead of time and schedule a proper walk through.
Things to evaluate by observing or asking questions...
Are food items clearly labeled?
How do they avoid cross-contact, or do they even know what that means? (Food service industry refers to cross contamination as cross-contact.)
Are there select stations at some dining halls that do not use gluten to reduce risk of cross-contact? (Seems to be the trend for enlightened schools. See Cornell University post for best practices.)
Is food thoughtfully organized to avoid mixups? (e.g. dedicated serving pieces, top allergens in a separate area. Again, see Cornell University post for best practices.)
If a student is not comfortable eating from the line, are there safe options available from the back, or even pre-ordered?
Are there enough quality choices in comparison to unrestricted students? How much do you think you would you need to supplement?
Do they have a safe allergen-free pantry area? Evaluate whether it is there to avoid having to provide safe line food, or to genuinely enhance sufficient offerings.
Is the soy sauce used on campus gluten-free?
How do they get regular feedback from gluten-free students to ensure their needs are well met?
What’s the process if someone reports a reaction from the food, or simply has suggestions to improve things?
Is there a dietitian on campus? What type of coordination is there among dietitian, student disability services and dining?
What ongoing training programs are in place for the constantly changing dining staff (often students), and how does it vary based on their role? Who is authorized to answer food allergen questions? What auditing is done?
Are safe options available in all dining halls and places students use their university currency?
Student Disability Center
Consider calling or stopping in at student disability services and find out what accommodations they recommend for students with celiac disease, and the process for securing them (e.g. access to special foods, housing accommodations, time to make up tests if you are exposed to gluten). Inquire how they coordinate with school dietitian (hopefully there is one!) and dining.
The U.S. Colleges Directory: Comparing Food Allergy & Gluten-Free Policies has information on 126 institutions, focusing on the 3 large food service companies contracted to support hundreds of universities and colleges across the United States. The directory is helpful for understanding a school's official policies on accommodations, and gives you an idea what you should ask colleges that aren't on their list.
Is there a full-time dietitian on campus? Lack of a dietitian may indicate a lack of school commitment to meeting dietary needs. If there is a dietitian, definitely connect before you commit to the school. Dietitians often work with student disability services to advocate for students with food restrictions.
Student with Celiac Disease on Campus
Even after asking the right questions from the powers that be, the reality on the ground is often quite different. Do not be shy! Use family, school counselor, friend connections, to find any college student at the school. In addition to talking about the school, your mission is to ask her to find you a student with celiac disease on campus to talk to, or ideally meet up with on your visit. There is nothing better for getting the real picture than speaking to a student with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. See our Celiac College Student Survey for examples of questions you can ask, and check if we have any responses posted for schools of interest to you.
Eat in Town
Do some gluten-free searching of the surrounding area for off campus eating and food shopping options too, as you may choose to get off the meal plan after your first year.
When you know where you are going you will be resourceful and make it work. If you wind up having to supplement with lots of your own food, you may want a larger than normal fridge/freezer combo, some even have microwaves on top. Some schools rent them so they are there waiting for you upon arrival. Amazon can deliver food. You can have a blender and make your own smoothies. You can keep staples like gluten-free instant oatmeal packets (e.g. Trader Joe, Glutenfreeda), protein bars and canned soup. Ideally, though, you will know what you are getting into before you arrive.
There is no substitute for getting feedback from celiac students on campus.
Current or recent celiac college students, please take our