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Considering Gluten-Free Dining Needs During My College Search

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

By Abby Spaulding, GFF Student Journalist

I want to go to a small college and I envision time spent at the cafeteria with friends and sharing meals together to be an important part of my college life. I am definitely looking for lots of different factors in schools, like academics and social environment, but as someone with celiac disease, eating safely is one of the most important factors for me. I am known for always overpacking when I go on a trip. I want to cover every possibility! Although this has led to many heavy suitcases and isn’t necessarily the best approach for travel, I know that overpacking on the details will only help me as I embark on my college search.


So, where to begin?


Fortunately, I am part of an active celiac community in Seattle, Washington, through Seattle Children’s Hospital. One of our recent support group meetings was all about managing celiac in college. We heard from current college students about their experiences navigating eating safely at college. Hearing their stories, both positive and negative, has helped me realize that the best way to find out if a college can provide safe eating is to visit in person, if possible.


I narrowed down my in-person visits to three colleges that I could either drive or fly to in a few hours. My first step was to look at each college’s website and identify their food service vendor. Some of the larger food service vendors have their own websites where you can learn more about their allergy procedures. Some of the schools also included their daily menus which was very helpful to see. Just from looking at the menus for different schools, I noticed that food offerings varied greatly from school to school, even if they had the same food service. I knew I’d have to visit the schools in person, if possible, to really understand if they could accommodate celiac disease.


On those pages, I also found the contact information for each school’s dining manager and reached out via email to ask if they would be willing to give me a tour of the cafeteria and if I could have a meal there during my campus visit. I had positive interactions with all three schools before I even got on campus, and they all were happy to help with this.

Once I was on campus the real detail collecting began! I made a list of questions beforehand and added to it after each visit. How wide of a variety of gluten-free foods are offered? Just one allergy-free station or is gluten-free food offered at multiple stations? Can they prepare the food separately so there is a low risk of cross-contamination? Are staff trained on what cross-contamination is? I also asked questions about access to kitchens in dorms and other dining options on campus.


I was impressed that one school had eliminated all soy sauce from the entire cafeteria and only used tamari sauce. That school also used gluten-free breading on all fried foods in order to make their fryers gluten-free. Having gluten-free fried chicken and french fries available every day was pretty appealing! One issue that I had never thought about arose when one school let me know that they have minimal dining options on the weekends. I then also asked this question at the other schools I visited. I also asked if they had an on-campus grocery store with gluten-free options so students could get food to make back at their dorm room if needed.


One thing that surprised me was that every school I visited was willing to go the extra step to ensure safety not only for students with celiac but all students with allergies. Each school said they would prepare meals individually or keep food in separate refrigerators if that made the students more comfortable. All of the dietary managers at these schools give their cell phone numbers to students with food allergies so they could get help quickly if needed.


So, all in all, a good start! I feel encouraged that more and more schools are accommodating students with celiac disease and other food allergies. This is just the beginning so wish me luck!

This GFF Student Advocate Guest Blog Post was written by

Abby Spaulding, a senior at Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle, WA.

Abby enjoys singing and theater and is a proud member of the

Celiac Youth Leadership Council at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

 

Good luck, Abby, and thanks for sharing some of your college search with us!


Learn more about evaluating dining during your college search:


Gluten Free Friends works to raise awareness about the importance of safe, inclusive dining for college students with food restrictions. We welcome student contributors to our blog. Go to Contact Us to submit your story ideas!

Follow us on Instagram @gfreefriends.


We encourage college students with medically required food restrictions to complete our quick survey about your dining program to help inform prospective students and push colleges to improve their food allergy dining programs.



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