Living with a restricted diet

Imagine that you have just been told that you can no longer consume pasta, bread, cakes, cookies, brownies or beer. Or peanut butter. Or dairy. Pretty grim thought, right? Eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions. They are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. As someone who has a food allergy (I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant last year), day-to-day life can have numerous obstacles. I either eat something with the worry that it will make me feel ill for a few days, or I have to scrutinize nutritional information labels and sheepishly ask how the dish was prepared.

In the last year, Dining Services has undergone monumental changes and many students are questioning whether these have improved our dining experiences. But perhaps we should pause to consider the perspective of the Dining Services staff. They carry a huge responsibility on their shoulders: They are in charge of the nourishment of the student body, an aspect of our life that crucially determines our academic success, our athletic capacity and our emotional and physical health. Not to mention the fact that they are cooking food that attempts to cater to all of our individual tastes and preferences. This is no simple task. Last summer, while interning with an event planning and catering company in New York, I realized that when catering for a multitude of people, one has to consider many factors: the preparation and cooking time, how long the food can be left out, the quantity of food to serve, how to make dishes seasonal and eco-friendly, how to fit ingredients into the budget and how to accommodate dietary restrictions and food allergies. We are extremely privileged to have the choice to not worry about buying groceries and preparing food for ourselves, and when one considers the enormity of the task that Dining Services faces, I think it’s apparent that they do a damn good job.

For a long time I was ashamed about my food allergy. I hated feeling like I was inconveniencing others and a part of me still dreads going out to restaurants. Shortly after being diagnosed, I was often unsure about certain meals being offered and would take the risk of feeling unwell instead of simply asking about what ingredients were used to prepare the dish. However, after having several reactions to gluten, I realized that the only way to improve the situation was to take the matter into my own hands. This resolve was fortified when I made friends with another student who had celiac disease and realized that this problem extended beyond my personal experience. I certainly had no anger towards Dining Services for not labeling the dishes as having gluten in them. I was astonished at how many foods contain this protein and still have to consult Google on a regular basis to learn what foods I can and can’t eat. So why should I expect the Dining Services staff to have such expertise on all food allergies?

Dining Services has been incredibly receptive and supportive when I’ve spoken with them at various meetings about the importance of labeling and catering to the needs of those with food allergies. They immediately made changes to the dining halls to warn students of food allergens and began to bring in more gluten-free products. The rapidity of such improvements was very moving; it is clear that they sincerely care for the well-being of every student here and are very willing to do all that they can to improve their service. In fact, after getting to know most of the staff personally, I have yet to find one who is not remarkably thoughtful and friendly. Now when I eat in dining halls, I am often reminded of the fact that there are people who have made an extra effort to make sure I don’t feel unfairly treated. The gluten-free pizzas at the ’82 Grill make my knees weak and the gluten-free fridge at Driscoll is almost always stocked with delicious gluten-free bread and cookies. It’s clear that we are still in a period of change and re-adjustment, but the direction of change is mainly contingent on the communication between Dining Services and students. Who knows better about what we would like to eat – and what would make life more palatable for those with food allergies – than us?

As proud as I am of the changes that have already taken place, I still believe that there is great potential for further improvement. In my mind, the key is an open and communicative relationship between the student body and Dining Services. That is why I have decided to set up a food allergies committee so that those with allergies, and anyone else interested in getting involved, can discuss the challenges we face everyday and think of practical changes we could implement here at Williams to make sure we remain fully nourished, despite our diet restrictions. We have access to a wealth of knowledge about the best allergy-friendly products and recipes and Dining Services welcomes this information. However, this dialogue between students and Dining Services staff shouldn’t be restricted to those with food allergies. If you really want to see improvement, why not fill out those comment cards, talk to the chefs or people serving you or approach someone on the Food Committee? They have our best interests at heart, you know.

Izzy Griffin-Smith ’13 is from Epsom, UK. She lives in Mark Hopkins.

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