S.U.B.’s dearth of gluten-free options prompts negotiations

Concerns about food allergens in the S.U.B. have prompted a handful of students to begin organizing a group that will work with Dining and Conference Services to negotiate gluten-free options.  CaroLea Casas, a freshman, is leading the effort to change the way our food service operates.
The issue is complicated for Dining and Conference Services (DCS) because people tend to have combinations of dietary restrictions rather than single allergies.  Casas, who is gluten-intolerant, is also lactose-intolerant and cannot eat animal products.  When she decided to attend Puget Sound, she was under the impression that her needs would be met. A University representative promised a variety of gluten-free, vegan options.
“He told me all I had to do was let them know and it wouldn’t be a problem,” Casas said.
Casas was also accepted at Seattle University, and when she visited the school’s cafeteria, she was amazed by the wealth of choices.  She assumed, based on what she was told, that Puget Sound would be similar.
“The promise of gluten-free, vegan options was a really big factor in my decision to attend Puget Sound,” Casas said. “The school should be honest with prospective students.”
A lack of awareness, rather than dishonesty, may have been at the root of that false advertising.  Celiac disease awareness is relatively new to DCS. Assistant Director for Dining Services Melissa Flood said that only in the last six to eight months has there been any kind of focus on gluten-free food.  “This is a major shift in food service,” she said.
Flood recently added two new vendors—United Natural Foods, Incorporated (UNFI) and Flying Apron—to supplement service from longtime supplier Udi’s Gluten Free Foods.  Several students have complained about the high cost of the these products, but Flood says the University has little to do with the price.
“We’re not marking them up,” she said of Flying Apron cookies.  “I was just looking for something nice—a treat.”
There are few broadline distributors of gluten-free products in the Puget Sound area, and Flood said it is not feasible to buy single items from the grocery store.  She looks for vendors that are local and sustainable, but such companies are few and far between.
The reality is that gluten-free food is much more expensive when it is not prepared at home.  The procedure for serving gluten-intolerant students involves more time, extra supplies, extra packaging, special equipment, separate storage and special ingredients.
“Ideally we would have an allergen-free station,” Flood said.  But that’s unlikely because it would require a total renovation of the S.U.B. and a special allergen-free kitchen. “There’s a difference between gluten-free offerings, which we have, and a gluten-free environment, which we do not have,” she said.
Despite DCS’ efforts, Casas is seriously considering moving to an off-campus house for the second semester of her freshman year. She is tired of eating expensive, lackluster meals in a dining facility that is often unpredictable. There is no way to opt out of the mandatory meal plan for students who live on campus, and many of the dorms do not have kitchen facilities that are convenient for regular meal preparation.
“I’m lucky because my parents taught me everything they know about cooking,” Casas said.  “Most students have had their food prepared for them for 18 years and have no idea how to do it.”  If the University continues to insist on assuming this parental role, DCS will have to adjust its practices for a world where serious food allergies are commonplace.
Many S.U.B. student workers still are not aware of the procedures for serving people who have celiac.  The lines jam up easily when a S.U.B. worker has to be walked through the process, or when the server has to dig up an ingredients list to find out if the broth used to cook the entrée was gluten-free.
Ted Oja, a gluten-intolerant freshman, said he has experienced the effects of consuming gluten after eating a S.U.B. meal that he thought was gluten-free.  Casas expressed a distrust of the gluten-free menu icons, which she said are not always correct.
Flood admitted that a breakdown exists in the communication chain, but she is not sure where.
“Bear with us,” Flood said.  “We hear you, we understand; but it’s like turning a ship around.  Change like this is incremental.”
Suggestions for improvement include making DCS more accessible through social media, better training for S.U.B. student workers and online menus searchable by any combination of dietary restrictions.