Fighting food intolerance
Freshman Tim Krah never knows for sure what food is safe for him to eat.
The wrong bite can earn him a terrible stomachache. Too many of those and he might get cancer.
What exactly does he have to look out for? Almost everything.
Specifically, Krah is intolerant to gluten, a component of wheat, barley and rye. Those sorts of products are common in themselves, but gluten is often mixed into more surprising food like soups, soy sauce, licorice and meatballs.
“Early in the year when I had a salad, I’d get a stomachache, so I stopped eating that,” said Krah. “It’s hard not to be neurotic about this.”
At least he is not taking his concerns lying down. In May, he contacted Director of Campus Nutrition Connie Diekman to find out exactly what he needed to do to be safe. She gave him advice, showed him meal options around campus and pointed him to forums and outlets on campus for students with allergies.
He also made some suggestions for how Dining Services might improve the safety of its food. Still, his few meetings might not be enough to induce significant change.
“A lot of students don’t really take the initiative,” said Krah. “[Diekman] seems to think that it’ll be hard to change things.”
According to Diekman, Dining Services is almost helpless without student feedback. If students don’t inform campus staff about their individual needs, it is nearly impossible for Dining Services to effectively plan around students’ dietary concerns.
“First of all, it’s a privacy issue, so [students] don’t have to say anything,” Diekman explained. “[But] if you don’t understand the issue, you probably don’t have the right answer.”
And then, of course, a problem arises when ideas conflict. For instance, Krah proposed that gluten-free foods be pre-packaged, the way that Kosher choices currently are offered on campus. However, some allergic students are not comfortable unless they see their meals made in front of them so they can make sure that nothing unsafe is mixed in. Without some kind of consensus, the school will have trouble choosing one option or the other.
Dining Services arranged three forums earlier this year for students with food allergies.
“What we wanted to do with the forum was to hear from [students], but also bounce ideas off them,” said Diekman.
Unfortunately, only one forum had any attendance. At that one, there were fewer than ten students, two of whom were food committee members and some of whom only showed up to support Krah.
Junior Stephanie Brosius takes a different approach to food safety. She is allergic to caffeine, which can be found in obvious things such as coffee and chocolate, but also in some unexpected foods like apples. She thinks that every person should be largely responsible for his or her own health.
“I feel like [Dining Services does] a pretty good job with the really severe allergies,” said Brosius. “I think in a lot of ways, you have to take responsibility for it. If you don’t check what’s in the food, you can’t blame someone else.”
Diekman pointed out that Bon Appétit is more than open to individuals who want to take control of their food options. Chefs and managers at the dining facilities on campus are willing to make immediate changes in recipes, to prepare food in front of a customer or to offer any other kind of help.
Krah agrees that this type of activism is incredibly important, especially since in many situations like parties or off-campus dining one cannot expect food to be acceptable.
“I don’t think you should expect someone to unknowingly cater to your needs,” said Krah. “I think that aspect really relies on the individual.”
The school is willing to alter its menu to address students’ concerns. The menu-making process begins in spring, when Diekman meets with Executive Chef Marc Foley to correct problems that arose in the past school year and to set future goals. Allergies are always taken into account after the menu has been decided, when important gaps can be identified. However, it remains difficult for Diekman and Foley to figure out what changes need to be made since they recieve such a scanty response from allergic students.
Diekman remembers an interesting point made by a concerned student.
“‘People with diabetes don’t hesitate,’” she remembers him saying. “‘Why should people with food allergies hesitate to speak up in the same way?’”
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