Dining change negatively impacts students with food allergies
By Brandon Samuels, GFF Student Journalist
Living with gluten and dairy allergies has always been a challenge. I cannot just walk into a restaurant and expect to have food to eat. Whether it is going to a birthday party, holiday dinner, or enjoying a meal with friends, finding safe food always requires research and preparation. So when it was time to attend college, I understood that I needed to select an institution that would support my dietary needs. I chose to attend Brandeis University, not only for its academic reputation but also because of its accommodating dining hall program. The stakes were high; I would have to trust dining hall staff members to keep me safe.
For most of my freshman year, Brandeis University delivered on its promises. There were clearly labeled options that I could eat, their cafeterias had a station that was rid of the top nine allergens, and they even had a regularly stocked pantry exclusively allocated to students with food allergies. A dedicated dietitian listened to feedback from students and effectively reached out to those with allergies. But a change was coming that would dramatically impact the lives of Brandeis students with food allergies.
On April 14, 2022, Brandeis University announced a new contract with Harvest Table Group, officially ending the university’s partnership with Sodexo catering services. At first, I was intrigued by the possibilities of new safe options. And why wouldn’t I be? In Harvest Table’s promotional pamphlet, the company promised that they would be “Keeping students with special diets safe and making them feel included with our personalized order-on-demand program.” But I understood from my college search that dining websites and written materials were often unreliable. I would need to evaluate Harvest Table’s food allergy program for myself.
What Brandeis students discovered in the dining halls in August of 2022 was awfully concerning. Long lines wrapped around the cafeteria. Only limited stations were opened, causing frustrated students to wait 20 minutes to get a piece of chicken. While all Brandeis students were inconvenienced by this rocky opening, weak dining processes posed a serious health risk to students with food allergies. It was not long before I met with the new dietitian with a list of my concerns, many of which were beyond her control. A week after our meeting I found out that she had resigned.
Although long lines began to dwindle and more stations resurfaced as the months progressed, the situation for students with food allergies worsened. A clear example of this involves the Hive Culinary Studio food court. In January of 2023, Brandeis expanded the Hive’s ordering options and added large signs above each vendor’s station listing allergens. But while the signs emphatically labeled ingredients as gluten-free or dairy-free, the reality could not have been more different. In only the span of a month, I observed clear instances of cross-contamination practices taking place at each station. Staff at La Sabrosa heated gluten-free tortillas in the same pan as whole wheat cheese quesadillas. Employees at Nakiri boiled rice noodles in the same pot as ramen noodles. Not only was the dining staff incapable of keeping the food safe for those with allergies, but they also misled students by promoting these areas as allergy-friendly spaces.
For most of my time at Brandeis, I have left the cafeteria hungry. The lack of palatable and safe options has left me searching for other alternatives. During the 2023 spring semester, I missed three classes from severe gastrointestinal issues after eating from these locations and warned my friends with food allergies to be wary about Brandeis’ dining practices. I spent money at the convenience store or cooked my own food. By March of 2023, I completely stopped eating any food from the Hive Culinary Studio.
Brandeis advertises allergy-friendly options without actually providing a safe and appetizing dining experience, which is dangerous and unacceptable. We need a reliable dining program at Brandeis that prioritizes student safety. Brandeis should train their dining hall staff, remove false and misleading large allergen labels, and bring in third-party specialists to audit and fix the food allergen program. If Harvest Table Group is unable to promptly meet the needs of students with allergies as advertised, Brandeis should switch dining vendors. Additionally, Brandeis ought to include ongoing student feedback. I do not feel supported when it takes four staff members to provide an ingredients list, or when the only gluten-free bread provided is the texture of sandpaper. Brandeis has not fostered a personal relationship with those that have allergies, rendering students to feel voiceless.
This fall, I will mostly avoid the dining halls. I just can’t risk it. I will safely cook my own meals off campus. However, I am deeply concerned for all the other students with allergies that depend on the cafeterias. Food allergies are considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and while Brandeis outsourced dining, they did not forfeit their legal obligations. Students living in Brandeis housing are required to spend up to $8000/year on a meal plan and deserve a dining program that keeps them safe and truly accommodates their dietary restrictions. Overall, I believe that Brandeis is misrepresenting its ability to safely feed students with food allergies. They must do better and act quickly.
This GFF Student Advocate Guest Blog Post was written by
Brandon Samuels, a junior at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, studying Politics and Legal Studies.
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!
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