March 2, 2010

Dining exemptions policy too strict, petition says

Dormitory residents with dietary restrictions who are forced to stay on the unlimited meal plan are petitioning the Housing Office to be more lenient in granting exemptions.

The Housing Office allows students with medical and religious dietary needs to request exemption from the mandatory unlimited meal plan, but the petition organizers say that the system is too harsh, preventing some students from leaving a costly plan they rarely use.

Petition writer and second-year Talia Penslar said the petition’s goal is not to pressure the University to change their menu. “They are going to need to relax their [exemption] policy for students with allergies,” said Penslar, who cannot eat wheat. “What they have done so far isn’t sufficient.”

The petition has about 200 signatures so far, but most of those who signed don’t have allergies. Penslar said only six people on campus have celiac disease, which requires a lifelong gluten-free diet. “We are not talking about a big financial blow to the food-serving providers, but a little bit of a cushion to the students with severe problems,” said Penslar, who does not suffer from celiac disease.

The Housing Office has no clear-cut criteria for granting exemptions, which are granted on a case-by-case basis, Director of Undergraduate Housing Katie Callow-Wright said.

“We try to determine whether we can provide food [in a] still safe and healthy environment,” Callow-Wright said. “We do have cases where we have released students from the meal plan.”

Dining officials said they work with the Medical Center to develop celiac-friendly diets, and provide rice noodles, white rice, and gluten-free bread and cereal on request for students who contact them. In addition, dining staff are trained to change gloves when handling gluten-free substances to avoid contamination. Exemptions are a last resort because Housing Office officials consider eating at dining halls a part of the housing experience.

Due to confidentiality issues, officials did not comment on Penslar’s case.

Penslar eats at Bartlett two to seven times a week and can eat about 20 percent of the food offered. Because of cross contamination, however, she fears consuming anything other than raw fruits and vegetables.

“No restaurant-style or dining hall–style can ever guarantee a hypoallergenic environment,” Penslar said. “The buffet style increases the chance of cross contamination.”

Penslar said that dining hall food is not always prepared exactly by the recipe, and dining hall employees make mistakes: Croutons can fall in the lettuce or a worker may forget to change his gloves before beginning a new task, which might cause an allergic reaction.

Second-year Ariana Melendez, who is allergic to dairy, eggs, wheat, tomatoes, fish, and shellfish, but has not been released from the meal plan, acknowledged the University’s efforts to accommodate her diet, but said her options are still severely limited.

“I know that the housing and dining services are trying because I have met with them multiple times,” she said in an e-mail interview. “But that is no excuse for me to have to eat the same rice noodles, veggies without sauce, and Lucky Charms for all of my meals for three days straight.”

Housing Office representatives said they have not heard of the alleged discontent from any of the committees that report on the student body’s opinions.

“We have seen a lot of satisfaction with the changes. [They] offer greater flexibility, better value,” Callow-Wright said. “We feel like it was a good move.”

She said the Housing Office welcomes feedback to “open the lines of communication” with the petitioning students.

“We are going to want to understand what is going on with the students who are driving the process,” Callow-Wright said.