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Book of Matthew: Trying to eat gluten-free on a college campus

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Opinions


Complaining about the poor quality of dining hall food is an integral part of attending Brandeis.  Everybody does it.  With every passing dining survey, the results are about the same: Students want better food, a greater selection and longer hours.  But imagine if you could only eat a fraction of the mediocre food available to us.

When Nicole found out that she needed to go on a gluten-free diet last April break, she was not looking forward to coming back to campus and trying to eat in the dining halls.  And she still isn’t.

“Food-wise, you would think they would accommodate,” she told me while heating a frozen dinner in a microwave in her Ziv.

Nicole, a junior who wishes to withhold her last name, has gluten intolerance.  Not everyone has heard of gluten, but everyone has eaten it.  Found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, gluten is the protein substance that helps bread rise and gives it a sticky texture.  It is contained in many processed foods and almost all baked goods, making it difficult to avoid altogether, let alone on a college campus.

Unfortunately for those with gluten intolerance, they have no choice but to avoid it. Continuing to eat gluten can cause a myriad of health issues like autoimmune disorders, digestive complications and, in the long term, even death.  There is no cure or treatment other than the complete elimination of gluten from their diet.

Nicole has found it particularly difficult to maintain her diet.  Most of the options in the dining halls are off-limits to her.  Quiznos and Upper Usdan almost exclusively serve bread products.  Lower Usdan has more variety, but only a few stations serve gluten-free food, like the Balance Station and occasionally the Home Zone.  Sherman is similar, with a few gluten-free options in a sea of breads and pastas.  The P.O.D. Market has a decent selection of frozen gluten-free meals, although these are mostly vegetarian or vegan.  Nicole can’t eat most of those because they contain soy, which her doctor has told her not to eat due to another allergy.

On the days when Nicole will eat in one of the dining halls, she doesn’t eat much.  For breakfast, she will order two fried eggs from Lower Usdan. For lunch and dinner, she will make salads.  But these meals are rare, both because she fears cross-contamination and because the repetition becomes boring.  Most days, she eats gluten-free cereal stored in her room, microwaves frozen meals and orders in from nearby restaurants that serve food she can eat.

All the outside food adds up, though.  Nicole said that she spends an average of $90 every time she goes to Hannaford to pick up essential food items—about once every other week.  This does not include the money she spends to order in, and yet it already adds up to between $600 and $700 per semester.  And that is on top of what she is pays for her required meal plan, from which she gets little use.

“Even my coach is more accommodating than Brandeis,” she said.  Before tournaments, Nicole’s volleyball coach will often go grocery shopping for the team, making sure to buy plenty of gluten-free items.

Laura O’Gara, the nutritionist who works at the health center, said that Brandeis is doing a lot to accommodate the 18 gluten-free students who have come to her for advice.

She pointed out there is a system in place that allows gluten-free students to order specially-prepared food from Lower Usdan, provided they call by 10 a.m. that day and let the Usdan staff know when they will arrive to eat.

Though aware of the ordering system, Nicole said that she has been unable to use it because her busy schedule prevents her from predicting when she will have time to eat.  Volleyball in particular gets in the way.  Last semester, she had practice until 8 p.m., when Lower Usdan closes.

O’Gara also said both Lower Usdan and Sherman have special refrigerators that gluten-free students can access.  They don’t have much in them: a loaf of gluten-free bread, rice wraps, gluten-free French rolls, gluten-free soy sauce and gluten-free salad dressing.  But they do allow gluten-free students to make their own sandwiches at the self-serve deli station nearby.  O’Gara said since this option opened, gluten-free students overwhelmingly prefer to make their own food instead of ordering ahead.

Still, Nicole feels she and other gluten-free students would have an easier time if they were given access to medical housing and allowed to get off the meal plan and cook for themselves.  She has been unsuccessful so far.  When she tried to apply for medical housing, she was denied.  Brandeis requires medical tests for special housing, but it is difficult to test for gluten intolerance—most doctors use trial and error.

Nicole was told she could move off campus, but she doesn’t have a car to get her to and from class.

Brandeis should acknowledge the seriousness of gluten intolerances and allow these students greater access to medical housing, where they can cook in their own kitchens without having to worry about safety or the cost of a meal plan.  The planned Grad renovations should make this easier. By attracting more students to live in Grad, the renovations will free up more kitchen space in other quads.   This space should go to the students who need it.

Nicole hopes that next year she will get into a Mod and no longer have to worry about the quality of her food.  Unfortunately, not every gluten-free student can say that.