Students struggle with gluten-free diet at university
While most freshmen have the typical anxieties at the start of their first semester—ranging from roommate issues to navigating through campus, junior Emma Aufrichtig said she stressed about when, where and what she could eat before every meal.
Aufrichtig has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which people cannot tolerate gluten because it damages the inner lining of their small intestine and prevents it from absorbing nutrients. She understood her condition was important to pay attention to, but disliked the stigma that came with being gluten free. Her parents were always very involved in helping her with her disease. Their involvement heightened when she began looking at colleges.
Aufrichtig listed a number of schools that had great gluten-free options, but never thought it needed to be a deciding factor. Her tour guide at the university explained to her that one of her friends had celiac disease and had no problems eating on campus.
“These were reassuring words, but I was never given any logistics as a prospective student,” Aufrichtig said.
The week before move-in day, Debbi Miller, administrative dietitian at the university, helped Aufrichtig plan her first two dining hall meals. She said she was very grateful for Miller’s help, but realized her dietary issues would make her life more complicated than expected.
“I love UD, but had I known how difficult eating on campus would be, I may have decided on another school,” Aufrichtig said.
Every day, she would receive an email from Miller with three gluten-free options per meal. Aufrichtig would then email the dining hall, stating her allergy, when she was coming to eat and what she wanted to eat that day.
From Miller’s standpoint, the gluten-free program works well for university dining. She explained the options are ordered in advance and prepared individually to avoid cross contact with gluten.
“The gluten-free dining program at UD has been very successful,” Miller said.
Aufrichtig, however, found the program to be so inconvenient that during her sophomore year, she stopped pre-ordering meals and started eating gluten-free options from the salad bar and deli station.
“My friends would make fun of me because some days the only thing that was appealing to me would be carrots and olives,” Aufrichtig said.
Aufrichtig said she feels the university’s dining program must further educate its employees on food allergies and dietary restrictions. Students worry about cross contamination, which is a very common issue in cafeteria-like settings.
“Sometimes my meals would come with fries,” Aufrichtig said. “But employees never seemed to know if they were fried with food that contained gluten or not.”
She hopes that university dining will enhance its gluten-free options by varying menus and by working to provide students with safe and uncontaminated meals. These changes would eliminate the stress students face when having to plan every detail of their meal.
Living off campus has been the best change for Aufrichtig, especially with the number of restaurants on Main Street that offer a variety of gluten-free options. The surrounding grocery stores also have aisles and sections dedicated to gluten free products, which makes cooking at home an option as well.
“Eating and living off campus is like a different world and so much easier,” Aufrichtig said.
While UD Dining tends to disappoint students like Aufrichtig, Gluten Free at UD is an RSO that welcomes and supports students with celiac disease and gluten intolerances. Aufrichtig has attended some of their events and recognizes them as an informative group that is great resource for gluten-free students.
Regina Santangelo, senior and president of Gluten Free at UD, originally joined the group for social support from other students with celiac disease, but soon realized all of the ideas she had for Gluten Free at UD that she wanted to put into action. The club hosts Final Survival, a free event that offers members gluten-free snacks during finals week.
As the president, Santangelo hopes that in the coming years, people will realize how serious of a condition celiac disease is and how easy it is to contaminate gluten-free food.
“People don’t realize that toasting bread in a toaster that has been used for non-gluten-free items will contaminate the gluten-free bread and make the person sick,” Santangelo said.
Miller explained the current gluten-free program at the university has evolved over the past 16 years to offer great variety and provide many popular specialty products.
“UD Dining continually evaluates the gluten-free menus and choices to ensure we are providing the best options available,” Miller said.