The Diner’s Quest to Provide
By Nicholas Smit
There’s a food fight on campus between the Diner staff and an onslaught of vegan, vegetarian and food-allergy students—and all sides are actually winning.
On-campus students must buy a meal plan. Students then get a sizeable discount on food bought at Diversions, Oppenheimer, the Cellar, and the Diner—the Diner being the primary food hub with a huge menu of options.
Clearly, if students are forced to dish out money on a meal plan, the Diner should serve enough different foods so that all can eat. It’s basic food equity.
Yet, every year, many food-allergic students were paying in without pay-off.
That’s why, when the Student Union Building (SUB) underwent a complete kitchen remodeling last school year, Executive Chef Brian Sullivan said providing for students with allergies had to be—and was—seriously addressed.
“There’s a huge need for allergen-free food. I’ve been here three years and every single year that I’ve been here the number of students with food allergies grows tremendously,” Brian said. “If we don’t provide that for them, they can’t eat somewhere else.”
The Diner was equipped with the “Allergy Friendly” station, which supports its own separate kitchen to prevent cross-contamination with the top eight most common food allergies.
It’s unquestionably a move towards equity, but many students saw two steps forward and one step back. Notably, the vegetarian station was gone, and with it an obvious and guaranteed provision for vegetarians and vegans.
“I was kind of disappointed because it feels like the vegetarian options are now very limited,” Senior Elena Wadsworth said. “And I’ve never gotten anything from the allergy-free station because it always has meat as the entrée when I walk by and I don’t want to wait for just the side dish.”
A great deal of students hold Wadsworth’s position, and Sullivan has talked to many concerned students about the availability of vegetarian and vegan meals.
“The reality is, we have more vegan and vegetarian food now than we did when we had [the vegetarian] station,” Sullivan said.
“What we did was we broke that station down, kept probably about 80 percent of the recipes, and dispersed them into the Asian Station, Chef’s Table, and Allergy-Station. A lot of them didn’t go away, especially the popular ones,” Sullivan said.
He shows students who approach him the upcoming week’s menu and gives them a tour of the stations as reassurance that the Diner is providing a diverse array of vegetarian and vegan foods at all times of the day.
New this year is a revision of the protein-dish policy at the Chef’s Table, reducing the former two protein-dish policy to one protein-dish alongside a permanent vegetarian or vegan entrée.
“Out of Chef’s Table, we have Jamaican jerk pork steak, and we also have a tofu steak which is really, really good. We just tried it. I’m not big on tofu but the jerk marinated on it is real good,” Sullivan said.
The Asian Station also has the new policy of one permanently vegetarian or vegan entrée at each meal. The Grill always has vegetarian and vegan menu items and now boasts separate fryers for each. One of the two soups is always vegan, and the Sandwich Station and Latin American Station have new and diverse options as well.
It’s safe to say vegans and vegetarians can eat at the Diner, even with the disappearance of the Vegetarian Station—arguably, they now have more choice.
So why do the complaints persist, and should the Diner react?
Wadsworth explains that two things are limiting her and many others’ meal options; the first is less to do with availability and more to do with perceptions.
“I don’t necessarily go to the Chef’s Table because I have the assumption that it’s still meat entrees, so I don’t even check it out,” Wadsworth said. “I didn’t know that they have tofu steaks and different things.”
So, returning students just have to adjust to a more scattered vegetarian menu. For first years, unaware that a vegetarian station even existed, being vegan at the Diner is easy.
“As a vegan, I thought it would be very hard in the beginning, but I’m living quite fine,” Gherman said. “I walk along looking for the little green dots [denoting vegan items] and so far so good.”
“The salad bar is usually pimpin’ and they have all those organic smoothies. Those are so helpful. They are expensive and they are wiping out my dining dollars but if you are just focusing on those food groups it’s okay,” Gherman said.
The second, and far more important problem many students face is when they have both allergies and a vegetarian or vegan diet.
“I’m also gluten-intolerant and lactose-intolerant so sometimes they just assume it can be pasta everywhere and that doesn’t work out for me,” Wadsworth said. “They’re very gluten-centered with their vegetarian options.”
“When I go to the SUB, what I see is meat, tofu, and gluten. And the tofu is great for people who are vegan, vegetarian and not allergic to everything, but I’m allergic to soy,” senior Kaylene Barber said.
Barber has a list of allergies a mile long, including such irregularities as soy, peas, chickpeas, lentils, gluten and pistachios. Finding any food at all in the Diner has been a struggle for her.
“I was excited when I first heard about the Allergy-Friendly Station and then after I became vegan I really couldn’t eat anything there,” Barber said. “There’s a shelf of gluten free vegan cookies I can eat, but that’s not a meal, that’s junk food.”
“This is why I cook at home; I can’t eat anything here. It’s not that I eat complicated, fancy things. I just need beans and rice, or sautéed spinach. I just need healthy food. It just takes time for me to do it, which is why it is very stressful,” Barber said.
Surprisingly, the Diner has a special offer for people like Barber: an individual menu, crafted by the student in collaboration with the Allergy-Friendly staff. At every meal on every day, the student can visit the Allergy-Friendly station to receive their uniquely prepared dish.
Only three students were on the list. Barber, as of Nov. 2, makes it four people. As half a dozen Dining Staff came to check her allergies and accommodate her needs, she started tearing up.
Beginning Nov. 9, Barber will have a safe and stress-free source of healthy food. Others who have a similarly problematic list of allergies should talk to Brian Sullivan or other head Diner staff promptly.
“In my mind, we hit two birds with one stone,” Sullivan said. “We ramped up our vegan and vegetarian items, and we also provided a safe place for people with food allergies to eat at every day.”
The Diner has really done a lot this year to provide for vegans, vegetarians, and food-allergy students, but there is still issues of equity. Wadsworth’s observation that gluten-intolerant vegetarians have limited entrée choices is one such problem to resolve. Gherman has some pointers as well.
“Breakfast is, for the general population, meat and eggs. It would be really cool if they had alternative milk options, some healthier branded cereals. Their fruit game
is also pretty weak, it doesn’t taste good and the quality is pretty low,” Gherman said.
Overall, the Diner scores an A for effort. Their biggest weakness lies in how unpublicized all their accomplishments are, to the point that people don’t eat in the Diner who easily could and would be satisfied.
This has been some food for thought.