Whether you’re gearing up to go to college, or you’re a parent sending off your teen, you’re undoubtedly going to experience a lot of excitement and emotion. This whirlwind of new beginnings and responsibilities can be demanding, and if you eat a gluten-free diet it certainly adds to the stress.
If you’re going to college, you’ll be fully responsible for feeding yourself, possibly for the first time. Meal plans, cafeterias, food points?! As for parents, we are always concerned that our kiddos are well-fed and passing this duty on to someone else can be tough.
Below we’ve provided advice, tips, resources and a list of colleges going the extra mile to help calm your nerves as you start off on your journey.
Gluten-Free College Dining Has Come A Long Way
When I started college 12 years ago, no one even knew what gluten-free was! If I wanted to avoid cross-contamination, there would have been literally zero options for me. Thankfully, I had not yet been diagnosed with celiac. The great news now is that gluten-free awareness doesn’t show any sign of slowing down and colleges all over the country are taking steps to accommodate to their gluten-free students.
A 2011 survey of 1,500 students at over 400 colleges found that 4% had some level of gluten intolerance, and an additional 5% avoided gluten for other reasons, such as health benefits.
That’s a whole lot of students to cater to, and colleges are responding. We’ve provided below a list of some of the colleges most attentive to gluten-free students, and some of the menus are making me drool.
All of that said, there is still good reason to be cautious. First of all, college cafeterias don’t always have the celiac customer in mind when creating gluten-free menu options. The gluten-free craze has taken off and often times misinformed dining staff think that all they need to avoid is bread and pasta, unaware of the complexity that is a strict diet sans gluten.
Second off, cross-contamination issues are especially challenging for university kitchens. The kitchens and self-serve stations are often messy, packed with people and filled with college student favorites like bagels and pizza. Keeping gluten-free food safe from accidental crumbs is easier said than done, and this is such an issue that places such as Northeastern University are labeling their food as “made without gluten” as opposed to “gluten-free.”
Recent research has highlighted the difficulties finding and trusting gluten-free options on campus. In a recent survey conducted by The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, a whopping 60% of gluten-free students reported being “glutened” by their college dining facilities. 61% of these same students reported that their dining services director was unaware of the requirements of a strict gluten-free diet. Another interesting piece of data I found was that 50% of these students were diagnosed with celiac or gluten sensitivity while at college, stressing even more the importance for increased awareness and meal options on campus. The entire study is explained by a handy infographic that we’ve provided in the resources below.
The issue recently gained attention in 2013 when the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, ordering them to provide gluten-free options for students with celiac disease and other food allergies. This happened after a Lesley student complained to the federal government that she was being forced to pay for a meal plan when she was unable to eat any of the food. This decision states that food allergies, if severe enough, may be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This has far reaching implications, and could require colleges to begin providing gluten-free meals free from cross-contamination.
Get Documented If You Have Celiac or Gluten Sensitivity
The spectrum of options that colleges are now providing ranges from sub-par to downright incredible, with plenty of variety in between. Some schools are catering specifically to those who are able to provide medical documentation of their gluten intolerance. Upon receiving proper documentation, campuses such as UCLA provide students with special access to gluten-free dining options which are strictly supervised. This, paired with the recent ruling by the DOJ, means that you should have proper medical documentation from a licensed physician stating that you have celiac upon arrival at school.
Always Beware of Cross-contamination
Some schools, such as Oregon State University, provide a detailed list of “gluten-free options” for those with intolerances or choosing to avoid gluten. However, they iinclude a warning that the items are prepared in a commercial kitchen and therefore could be subject to cross-contamination. Make sure you know the policy of your school’s gluten-free dining options and if they are well-informed of the measures needed to prevent gluten in meals.
Top 5 Gluten-Free Colleges
Penn State University offers gluten-free stations in each of their dining halls with options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They stock options from well-known brands such as Udi’s and Bob’s Red Mill, and have a menu that will make any gluten-free dieter drool.
University of Arizona pays particular attention to cross-contamination issues, going so far as to use special colored gloves for gluten-free food preparation and hosting allergen fairs to connect students with dining staff. They also have a very active gluten-free club for students and members of the community.
University of New Hampshire has online ordering! They do this because preparing a gluten-free meal takes extra special attention and can take a bit longer than others, making it difficult for gluten-free students to eat together with their friends. Requests can be made online or by telephone with the time and meal request, and it will be ready upon arrival to any of the campus dining halls.
Georgetown University provides a designated gluten-free station and has special labels for gluten-free items. They pay special attention to training dining staff multiple times each semester, and the campus dietitian works closely with the gluten-free student organization to ensure their needs are met.
Iowa State University provides gluten-free dining at each of their campus dining facilities, and goes so far as to provide a refrigerator, freezer, pantry, cooking and eating utensils, and small appliances at every station. Students are also able to request individually made meals or sign up for a gluten-free meal schedule.
We hope this blog will not only give you some help navigating the gluten-free scene on campus, but also give you some ideas to suggest to your schools to make gluten-free dining easier and more accessible!
If you want any more info on gluten-free dining at universities, here are some handy resources:
NCFA Gluten-Free College Tool Kit: http://www.celiaccentral.org/college/toolkit/
NCFA Gluten-Free Dining Training for Schools: http://www.celiaccentral.org/great/schools/
A Parent’s Perspective: http://www.celiaccentral.org/kids/parents/articles/Parenting-Articles/944/vobid–10181/