Dining plan limits students with food restrictions, students say

Media Credit: Emma Caamaño | Photographer

Freshman Cordelia Scales, who experiences severe gluten intolerance, said her in-unit kitchen has allowed her to avoid cross-contamination from a communal kitchen.

When Rhianna Brennan wants a meal on campus, she has to meticulously search for allergy-friendly menus and dodge cross-contamination in residence hall kitchens to avoid ending up in the GW Hospital.

Brennan, a freshman, said she navigates her lactose intolerance, mild celiac disease and “severe” allergies to eggs and nuts and faced a learning curve when first trying to eat at GWorld restaurants and control her food allergies.

Brennan is one of more than 10 students with food allergies who said their allergies prevent them from safely eating at some GWorld vendors and cooking in residence hall kitchens. She said finding restaurants on GWorld accommodating to her dietary restrictions can become expensive because she can only eat at select vendors like Roti, Sweetgreen and Flower Child.

“I have to really think about my choices,” Brennan said. “There are so few [options] for me here that a variety of food that I would be able to make myself would really be helpful, not only for my health, but also for my mental health.”

She said the risk of cross-contamination – the introduction of allergens into otherwise safe foods – in Potomac Hall’s communal kitchen and the fact that she doesn’t have an in-unit kitchen keeps her from regularly preparing her own food.

Brennan said she would have to bring her own pots and pans to use in the kitchen to avoid cross-contact with other allergens. Nine students said in interviews that the pots and pans the Residence Hall Association provides to residence hall kitchens are too “dirty” to use.

Brennan added that the University should give first priority to students with food allergies during housing registration and ensure that students with allergies have an in-unit kitchen, which could give them more control over what they can eat without fear of cross-contamination or overspending.

“Since I live in a building where the only kitchen is on the ground floor and it’s shared with more than 400 people, it’s a little bit more difficult to make your own stuff and be totally cognizant of all of your allergies,” she said.

University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said the Disability Support Services office works with dining officials to ensure that students with dietary restrictions are accommodated.

Nosal said dining officials launched the student dining representatives program – a group that advises students on how to accommodate their dietary restrictions – in response to student feedback in 2017. She said the representatives share tips and recipes for adhering to dietary restrictions and promote GWorld vendors with allergy-friendly menus.

“The dining representatives have found that many students benefit from learning more about the flexibility and convenience of the University’s open dining program,” she said in an email.

Nosal added that SAGE Dining – the Mount Vernon Campus’ contracted allergy-safe dining partner – works with students on an “individual basis” to ensure their dietary needs are met.

“From selecting ingredients to preparing menus to maintaining food preparation facilities are allergen free, SAGE works at each stage of the food preparation process,” she said.

Freshman Cordelia Scales, who experiences severe gluten intolerance, said her in-unit kitchen in Fulbright Hall makes her life a lot “easier” than it would be having to meal prep in the communal Thurston Hall kitchen. She said the Thurston kitchen would have been a “minefield of cross-contamination” and might have triggered the anxiety, gastrointestinal issues and inflammation associated with her illness.

Scales said gluten-free food options are typically more expensive, but she has learned to budget accordingly so she does not run out of GWorld funds.

“It is a concern,” Scales said. “However, I have learned how to cope with it. I usually look for the lowest price item that I can eat.”

Catherine Brown, a sophomore allergic to tree nuts and dust, said finding restaurants that will accommodate her dietary restrictions is difficult. She said she’s experienced allergic reactions at Indian food restaurants, like Taj of India, even after alerting the waiters of her allergy prior to ordering.

“I can’t go with my friends to get food anywhere anymore just because I’m so nervous to try anything new,” Brown said.

She said branching out to different GWorld vendors is inconvenient because students aren’t familiar with the ingredients in dining partners’ menu options. Brown said the GET app – an app that lists GWorld spots on campus – should include allergen information for each GWorld dining partner to ensure students with allergies know which places to avoid.

“If you’re trying to find new places to eat, you just have to go and figure it out for yourself,” Brown said. “On the GW app where they have the dining options, they should explicitly say if this place cooks with tree nuts, peanuts, anything like that so students can steer clear of it.”

Tyler Wong, a freshman allergic to dairy, eggs, nuts and shellfish, said GWorld has given him a lot more flexibility compared to other college campuses’ dining plans, which usually just consist of a dining hall. He said he frequents restaurants like Sweetgreen and Chipotle because he can choose exactly what ingredients are going into his food.

“I know I have a lot of friends with food allergies and food sensitivities at other schools with dining halls whose food options can be a lot more limited,” Wong said.

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