Dining Services continues to fail students with dietary restrictions

Izzy Williams

It’s been almost a year and a half since my first op-ed about the state of dining on campus for those with serious dietary restrictions, and I would love to tell you that Williams Dining has significantly improved the accessibility and quality of its allergen-free food. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more disappointing.

I have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes cumulative intestinal damage when I consume even microscopic amounts of gluten. I’ll put it this way: A dorm kitchen for you is a minefield of contamination for me, and for the past three years, I have had no other option than to work with Dining Services to make sure that I have safe, palatable meals. In 2021, I wrote about how these meals are often neither safe nor palatable and advocated for an expansion of menu offerings as well as a dedicated gluten-free kitchen space in Whitmans’ Dining Hall.

In fall of 2022, my wish came true; the long-promised “free-from” kitchen area was finally installed, and I was told that this area would give me many more options for designated meals that catered to my needs and tastes. I was dismayed to find that in actuality, the “free-from” space was designed to be “free from” dairy, eggs, fish, sesame and tree nuts as well as gluten, which meant that any meal I requested containing those ingredients could not be prepared in the dedicated kitchen. Therefore, these meals could not be prepared with absolute certainty as to the safety of the cooking environment. 

I recognize and completely support the necessity — nay, the right — of those with other allergies to have safe prep spaces, but the decision to combine multiple allergens under one umbrella limits everyone’s ability to access food that they enjoy and are able to consume. Students with egg or nut allergies shouldn’t have to eat gluten-free for four years any more than students with celiac disease should have egg, dairy, or fish proteins effectively cut from their diets. 

The menu prepared in the dedicated “free-from” area was rebranded under the name “Clean Cuisine.” I appreciate efforts to reduce contamination risk by staffing the station with a server at all times; however, I do not appreciate the range of food offered at this station. There are five proteins that make up the pillars of Clean Cuisine: chicken, pork, beef, tofu, and tempeh. Under this system, if you have an allergy and are vegetarian, or simply don’t like one of these proteins, there will be at least several days per week when you struggle to find something to eat. Like many others with intolerances or immune conditions, I have gastrointestinal issues that prevent me from eating most spicy foods, beans, and lentils. These few extra problem foods — which have been so easy to avoid outside of Williams — become prohibitive during the school year. 

I’ll put all of my cards on the table: I don’t speak for everybody with allergies, but in my opinion, the menu is simply not good. Students without allergies eat tortellini, pierogi, rice bowls, French toast, and pizza. Students with allergies are forced to consume such staples as “tempeh Sloppy Joes,” “chipotle lentils,” “baked avocado with hummus,” “lentil loaf,” “tempeh ratatouille,” and “fruit-infused quinoa.” In most respects I’m a pretty typical 20-year-old; sometimes I just want bacon and eggs for breakfast, not buffalo tofu scramble, root vegetable pancakes, tempeh bacon (why is it always tempeh, if pork is one of the few things the station can offer?), or “steamed greens” in an inch of standing water. 

Even when I was given “dedicated” meals, there were frequent problems with food being completely inedible. I’ve gotten oatmeal with pats of butter floating on the top, raw oats, raw pancakes, pasta with a slice of cheddar on top for “pasta with cheese,” and a “cheese and broccoli omelet” sans both the cheese and broccoli, which was just a flap of egg. Sometimes I come to pick up meals and find that they were never made in the first place. Why are students with allergies paying $4,000 per semester for board as if we get the same level of choice and quality as everyone else, when this is so demonstrably not the case?

When I have brought these issues to dining or to the administration, some staff members have been sympathetic and willing to help. Others have not. During one meeting, I was told that the school was not obligated to attend to “quality and taste,” per my accommodations, and that not picking up dedicated meals constituted a “rejection of accommodations.” By this time I was struggling with disordered eating as a result of the questionable safety, limited choice, and low “quality and taste” of my diet at the College, a fact that was known to everybody working on my case at the time. 

I have also been subject to a level of surveillance that other students simply do not experience. At a meeting with my celiac specialist in San Francisco this summer, she asked me about missing meals and swiping into Late Night following a conversation she had with a member of Dining Services. Why is my doctor asking me about instances where I lent my card to a friend to swipe into Whitmans’? Why is Dining Services raising concerns with my doctor that were not raised to me? Most of all, how is anyone supposed to recover from disordered eating when they are afraid that making a wrong move might constitute a “rejection of accommodations”?

Last fall, the situation with dining got so bad that I was down to one reliable solution: frozen food. Every day for dinner (and sometimes for lunch as well), I would make my way down to ʼ82 Grill, pull out a box of Amy’s Gluten-Free Macaroni or Three Cheese & Kale Bake from the freezer for gluten-free food, and heat it up in the adjoining microwave. I did so for about three weeks. Then one day, I came downstairs and noticed a funny smell coming from the food in the freezer. Turns out there was a problem with the outlet that powered both the freezer and microwave, but I was assured it would either be fixed or the appliances moved shortly. I waited patiently, but weeks passed with no word. When I asked for updates, I was told that a special team was deciding on a new location for the appliances, or that they were running “electrical tests” and I would hear soon. Two months passed, during which I had no reliable way of making meals in Paresky. If I wanted to eat a meal with friends — which is pretty much the main mode of socialization at Williams — I would have to go to Whitmans’, request a box of frozen food, wait for a member of staff to locate the box, take the box back to my dorm, microwave the food there, and bring the food back to eat, which all in all took about half an hour. By the end of the semester — two and a half months from when I’d first noticed the power issue — the freezer and microwave were still not fixed. My access to even the most rudimentary meals was simply not a priority for the College.

I want to be very clear, as I was in my last op-ed, that these issues are not the fault of the chefs and serving staff at Dining Services — the vast majority of whom have been nothing but kind, conscientious, and even concerned on my behalf about whether I am getting enough to eat. The staff at Whitmans’ and other dining halls want to serve safe, appealing food to students with allergies as much as we want to eat it. The problem is that the College does not consider students with dietary restrictions enough of a concern to allocate more resources toward addressing equity and quality issues in dining. With impending budget cuts on the horizon, we need to be thinking about how to expand protein options for students with allergies, incorporating student feedback into the creation of new menus, and finding more ways to accommodate a broader range of dietary needs and preferences. 

Most of all, we need to take the concerns raised by students who advocate for their own health and quality of life seriously. We are not being divas or asking for too much when we ask for food that is safe, properly cooked, appropriate to our health needs, and at least somewhat appetizing. We should not be afraid that our missed meals or turnstile swipes will be tracked and used against us. There is a psychological cost to all of this that cannot be understated. Not knowing whether your next meal will be edible, repeatedly going up against the administration, asking for help and being met with months of delay and silence — it’s too much for any college student to deal with on top of their studies, work, and extracurriculars. I couldn’t do it without the help of my parents, and I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for students without a support network. 

I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I am currently studying abroad in London, and when my host university learned of my celiac disease, they immediately offered me a private studio apartment where I can safely cook all of my meals. In contrast, when I applied for co-op housing accommodations last fall, hoping to have safer access to a kitchen and the ability to get off the meal plan, I was denied. It took an impassioned appeal to the dean to get the decision reversed. This isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. I ended my last op-ed with a plea: “We just want to eat.” A year and a half later, I need to be more unequivocal: We deserve to eat, and the College is neglecting their responsibility to ensure we do so. 

Izzy Williams ’24 is an English and sociology major from Mill Valley, Calif.