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The Challenges of Eating Gluten-Free in Duke's “Allergy-Friendly” Dining Program

Updated: Apr 12

By Sonia Green, GFF Student Journalist

Food options and labels at The Skillet at Brodhead Center on West Campus (Photo: Sonia Green)

As a gluten-free student, I genuinely appreciate that Duke University continues to dedicate so much effort toward having a top food allergy program. I am a junior and have seen some improvements since I first arrived on campus. Frankly, searching for gluten-free food, especially as a freshman, was stressful and challenging, but I am increasingly hopeful that incoming gluten-free students will have an easier time than I did.

As a freshman, I ate breakfast and dinner at Marketplace. This is one of the facilities receiving FARECheck Gold status for “allergy-friendly food handling” and, as of last year, also certified as free from tree nuts and peanuts. For lunches, I ate at The Brodhead Center on West Campus, commonly referred to as WU, which was essentially a campus food court where the rest of the students had most of their meals. As a gluten-free student, Marketplace and WU each came with their own set of challenges and risks to assess.

Exterior view of Marketplace on East Campus (Photo: Sonia Green)

Marketplace mostly serves first-year students. It is a nice dining hall. The sweet tea is sweet, they offer non-dairy milk alternatives and there is a mini fridge full of gluten-free breads, bagels, cookies, and snacks. Towards the end of my freshman year, a gluten-free waffle station was also introduced. Everything is labeled so students with food allergies know exactly what they can and cannot eat.

As a freshman, all I wanted was to be able to navigate dining options with the same ease as my peers. I found the food labels helpful at first, but then I noticed that they would constantly change. I loved the nacho station, but the tortilla chips and beef would be labeled gluten-free one day and contain gluten the next time it was on the menu. The same thing happened with the Asian Fusion station. I had no idea why the labels changed.

Once I realized labels on the same dish could just change for no given reason, I lost confidence in their labeling system. They seemed to randomly be limiting my choices, which led me to instead use my own judgment. This was not the safest practice, but there was nobody there authorized to talk about allergies then, and being gluten-free had already vastly limited my options. Every day, I walked past the pizza and pasta station, which didn’t always have gluten-free pasta on hand. I couldn’t eat the cheeseburgers or chicken sandwiches because they had no gluten-free bun, and when it was Asian Fusion week, I ignored that station since most of the dishes were fried in what appeared to be flour or prepared with regular soy sauce.

Duke Students lined up for lunch at Marketplace (Photo: Sonia Green)

There were many nights when the only protein I could eat was tofu from the vegan station. One night I had to buy a frozen burrito from Whole Foods because I could only find boiled potatoes and broccoli to eat. No matter where students choose to eat on campus, we should be able to find at least one complete meal which was simply not the case.

So much more food would have been available to me freshman year if Marketplace had consistently safe protein options, reliably available gluten-free bread and pasta, used only gluten-free soy sauce, and had trustworthy labeling. Gluten-free options just didn’t seem as important to Duke as nut-free options.

At WU, where I ate lunch as a freshman, and most of my meals as a sophomore, there were many more options, such as gluten-free pancakes and pizza. I tried my first burger on campus with an actual bun, not slices of bread from a mini-fridge. I could even enjoy chicken tenders and fries. However, although things were labeled more consistently, cross-contamination was an issue.

At breakfast, I watched as biscuits were carried over the pans of eggs, bacon, and potatoes. Sometimes naan would be added to my meal from Tandoor before I had the opportunity to say that I didn’t want it. With Duke’s dining program being one of the best in the nation, it was disappointing to see these procedural errors.

Again I also eliminated so many areas because I couldn’t eat anything. I never ate at Panda Express (which has since closed). I ignored Ginger + Soy because I could not eat any of their food (I eventually discovered one type of sushi and one rice bowl I can now enjoy). Even the chicken tenders that I once loved at Krafthouse are no longer gluten-free due to management changes.

Now, the award-winning Ask Me” program ensures that each dining location always has someone authorized to answer questions on food allergies. As a direct result of feedback from students with allergies, this fall two new eating venues are opening that eliminate the top 9 allergens and gluten altogether, removing the risk of cross-contamination. Many students on campus will appreciate the variety these new dining locations will provide. One is still under construction, but Gothic Grill has already replaced The Loop and seems well-received.

As a junior, I have grown pretty adept at navigating Duke dining even if it’s not always very satisfying. I mobile order what I can, but know I must request some things in person. Sometimes the only gluten-free dessert options are unfortunately also vegan. I buy my late-night snacks from the grocery store or eat McDonald's ice cream. The new venues will offer additional safe options without cross-contamination risks. Students with a variety of dietary restrictions should be able to at least find something to eat almost anywhere. However, only time will tell if Duke will adequately increase the amount of safe gluten-free options at Marketplace, where freshmen eat most of their meals, or address cross-contamination concerns at WU.

Overall, I am impressed by the steps Duke has taken to ensure students like me can eat three healthy meals a day, but, there is still work to be done to ensure that all food allergies are treated equitably on campus. Given their current trajectory, I am interested to see what comes next.

This GFF Student Advocate Guest Blog Post was written by Sonia Green,

a junior at Duke University in Durham, NC, studying

African & African American Studies and Visual & Media 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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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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