An open letter to Dining Services: Or, why I now have trust issues

| Staff Writer

Listen up, Dining Services. I think it’s about time we had a chat. No, this isn’t about that weird meat in the case in Bear’s Den last week. And it’s not about the fact that there are never enough California Rolls at the sushi station.

This is something a little more serious. Let’s talk about trust.

I understand that not many people think about food this way. I’d venture to say that for most students on this campus, food is at worst unpleasant—an inconvenience or an irritation.

This, however, is not my relationship with food, and there are hundreds more students at this school who could say the same. For us, eating is something we do after checking wrappers for lurking threats, after Googling ingredient lists, after hounding food service workers about what’s in that meal (or sending them to the back to “find someone who knows”). Eating is a chore.

Why? For me, it’s all forms of dairy, along with a laundry list of miscellaneous ingredients that my body simply can’t digest. For others, it’s lactose, or gluten, or shellfish, eggs, peanuts, soy, whey or tree nuts. Some people are vegetarian or vegan. Some follow dietary restrictions as part of their religious practices. The stakes can range from mild irritation (say, for a casual vegetarian who accidentally eats meat) to risk of death (someone with a severe histamine allergy to tree nuts getting a stray pine nut in her salad).

Here’s the important part: barring a long walk to Schnucks and cooking everything for ourselves in a Crock-Pot on top of our psych textbook, we rely on Dining Services for food every day. We rely on Dining Services to tell us what’s in our food and what’s not so we can make safe decisions about what to eat.

And quite frankly, I can’t bring myself to fully trust Dining Services.

I’ll admit that Dining Services has several measures in place meant to address special dietary needs. There’s a place for allergens to be listed for many meals (on the WUSTL app or on the Dining Services website). There are several separate cooking spaces for contaminant-free meal preparation. Dining staff members are generally willing to ask their managers about what’s in the food.

But the system of conveying food content information at this school still needs massive amounts of work. To start, major allergens aren’t labeled out in the open at serving stations. Hypothetically, they are available online, where ingredients for each food served should be listed. This would be workable, if that were always true, if the dining section of the WUSTL app were always up to date (it’s not) and the website were accessible and mobile friendly (nope).

Sometimes, ingredients aren’t listed at all, and all we get is a blanket statement that the food may contain allergens. Sometimes, meal allergen warnings are lumped together so that it’s impossible to tell which parts contain the allergens, a fact that makes one of the best tools in my ordering arsenal—the menu modification—useless.

Sometimes, dishes are mislabeled. There are often a variety of different recipes used for similar dishes, and this creates labeling chaos. The soup station and comfort meal station at the Danforth University Center both serve chicken and dumpling soup sometimes, but when they do, they list different ingredients for each kind of the same soup. (According to the Dining Services app, one contains milk and the other does not. I’ll leave it at that.) Other dishes that don’t have allergens listed online do, in fact, contain them in real life. I’ve bitten into “dairy-free” corn on the cob that was slathered in butter and “vegetarian” baked beans that contained bacon bits.

Some foods do not have ingredients listed anywhere. Almost all baked goods sold in cafes around campus, like breads, muffins, cakes and pretzels, don’t have any information because they are made “off-site” and there’s “no way to know.”

The resounding conclusion, straight from Dining Services itself, is that it cannot ensure that any food is free of any given allergens or ingredients. It recommends exercising caution if you are unsure about what’s in a food. This is wise but mostly for liability purposes, because if I followed this rule to the letter, I would be eating approximately three foods for the rest of my time here.

I understand that these issues present a real challenge to Dining Services. Food restrictions are inconvenient for everyone. But Dining Services must make a better effort to maintain better consistency and reliability in its labeling of its food. This is one of those situations where patchy information isn’t much better than no information at all because either way, you’re not really sure if what you’re getting is correct.

Here’s the bottom line, Dining Services. I’m trying to be an advocate for my own health and safety, and I’d love it if you did, too. I know it’s hard, but I really want to trust you. Meet me and other students halfway.