For those of you who plan to continue your education in college, we're here to provide some perspective on what to expect. Naturally, for those of us looking beyond the academics to consider the safety aspects as well, one of the most important considerations in choosing a school is the food situation. For us and our graduating daughter Edyth, that meant asking some key questions right off the bat: Which school had accommodations for food allergies and celiac disease? Which offered the most options for enjoying a “normal” experience with a sense of freedom around eating? And ultimately, which offered options to help Edyth feel safe and good on a daily basis?
The good news is this: MANY colleges are now celiac disease and allergen-friendly! In fact, out of all the colleges we visited, only one fell a bit short—and that was only due to the fact that they had fewer gluten-free/vegetarian options (Edyth is also a vegetarian, which made things doubly tricky), plus the labeling was less than ideal.
Here are some initial questions to consider when visiting or inquiring about a college:
Are ingredients listed on all foods in the cafeteria?
Is there a chef on site to take special orders? (Not necessary, nice to know!)
What types of allergen-friendly meals are served regularly? (See if you can get a list of menus for, say, a typical week)
Has the school gone through any gluten-free certification programs, and/or do they educate their kitchen staff in gluten-free protocols?
While these answers will get you started, learning even more will bring clarity to your decision. Here are a few more tips that may help you further narrow your list:
Make touring the dining facilities a priority on any college visit. Check the arrangement of foods in the cafeteria—are gluten-free items separate from other foods? This is also a great time to do some hands-on research around the existence (or not) of proper labeling.
If possible, meet or speak with someone in food services. Make a list of questions—ask about things like kitchen protocols, staff education, and cross-contamination. See whether the school offers staples at every meal—such as gluten-free bread, cereal, yogurt, etc. In our case, Edyth is happiest to know she can always stick to her gluten-free-vegetarian diet by making a quick peanut butter sandwich on gluten-free bread from the separate cooler loaded with gluten-free staples. The other sure thing for her is the safely-organized salad bar, which is available at lunch and dinner every day.
We strongly recommend that you request a small refrigerator for your dorm room if that’s an option. That way, you can store snacks or easy “to-go” meals at times when a meal or event falls short on the gluten-free front—or for late nights when restaurants and dining halls are closed. Make a point to visit a grocery or natural foods store now and then to keep your supply stocked, fridge or no fridge (there are plenty of non-perishable snacks you can keep on hand, too).
Find out whether or not the dorms have kitchens. In Edyth’s dorm, there’s a small kitchenette with a microwave, sink, and larger refrigerator on every floor—and then one larger kitchen with an oven in the basement. After a thorough cleaning, she and her friends spent a day doing some gluten-free baking, after which they shared the cookies and cupcakes with everyone on their floor.
Aside from the on-campus facilities, take time to scope out the campus surroundings for gluten-friendly restaurants, grocery stores, and coffee shops. Having access to off-campus options makes weekends or off-campus time a little less daunting.
Remember the importance of SELF-ADVOCACY! Now is the time to advocate not just for what you want, but for what you need. By doing so, you are paving the way towards your best possible future--both at college and beyond.