A stream of hungry students poured into the dining hall in Northeastern University’s International Village, surveying the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of everything from burgers to wild mushroom risotto to “foods made without gluten ingredients.”
Some loaded their plates with gluten-free creamed green beans because they have doctor’s orders to avoid the gluten protein in wheat, barley, and rye. Others opted for gluten-free baked sweet potatoes and Cuban pork chunks simply because they looked good.
The myriad special offerings reflect challenges that colleges and universities confront in balancing choices vs. needs in their cafeterias. They must cater to students’ increasingly sophisticated palate while ensuring that those with dietary restrictions have healthy and appetizing options, too.
A recent federal civil rights investigation of Lesley University for its failure to provide gluten-free food showed that one-style-fits-all dining options are no longer an option.
The US Department of Justice ordered Lesley to “continually provide” students with gluten-free dining options and pay $50,000 in damages to ensure the university is in compliance with a federal law that protects people with disabilities. A group of students with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, and other conditions will receive the money, according to the Justice Department.
The ways that Massachusetts colleges manage the gluten-free needs of students vary considerably.
The University of Massachusetts Boston and Boston University have gluten-free zones in cafeterias and food courts. Tufts University and Harvard University take a more individual approach, having students work with nutritionists and dining hall staff to determine what prepared foods can and cannot be eaten and ordering specialty items if necessary.
Tufts also provides a special freezer-refrigerator unit in its two dining halls stocked with gluten-free foods. The units are locked. Only students with special dietary needs are given keys, to make sure the shelves are not picked clean by curious students looking to try something new.
“Gluten, it’s in so many things,” said Patricia Klos, director of dining services at Tufts, which also makes gluten-free food available in campus cafes. “We need to know that the person who needs the accommodation is getting the item.”
UMass Amherst lists dining hall menus online, with a special icon identifying gluten-free items. The school also has an extensive handout on what foods to avoid and whom to contact if students need gluten-free food.
For some, going gluten-free might be the fad diet of the moment, avoiding pizza, beer, cookies, and cakes to lose weight. But for others, avoiding gluten is a necessity to steer clear of such symptoms as stomach pain, diarrhea, or bloating.
For people with celiac disease, eating gluten destroys the lining of the intestine, preventing absorption of nutrients and, specialists say, sometimes triggering joint pain, depression, or even cancer.
Northeastern freshman Anna Glasberg does not have celiac disease, but said her neurologist put her on a strict gluten-free diet, hoping to relieve chronic neck pain caused by inflammation from certain foods.
“I was afraid to come here, afraid they wouldn’t have any options,” she said, thankful that her fears were unfounded.
At dinner on a recent evening, her tray was filled with a gluten-free muffin, baked sweet potato, rice, and creamed green beans. “Gluten is in everything; it’s even in soy sauce.”
Not all Glasberg’s schoolmates stopped at the food station labeled “made without gluten ingredients” out of necessity. Junior Colin McAlpine examined gluten-less options before him and picked up a plate, deciding to eat a partially gluten-free dinner because the food looked tasty. So did Timothea Pham, although the freshman said her mostly gluten-free diet is a show of solidarity with friends who cannot eat gluten.
The heightened awareness to students’ special dietary needs began a decade or two ago with peanut and nut allergies, industry leaders said. Foods with peanuts, other than peanut butter, were removed from dining halls. Then came lactose-free milks and accommodations for students allergic to shellfish and eggs. And about three or four years ago, requests for gluten-free foods began.
“It’s student driven,” said Maureen Timmons, director of dining services at Northeastern. “It’s been very successful to listen to what students need, and as the needs kept growing, we kept expanding.”
Diane D’Arrigo, assistant vice chancellor for campus services at UMass Boston, said the school serves a diverse population and stays attuned to the different dietary needs of students, which naturally extends to those intolerant of gluten.
The school has low-sodium foods, vegan and vegetarian options, and gluten-free bagels, pasta, cookies, and brownies. A nutritionist is also available.
And the university took note when the federal disabilities act was amended to include digestive and bowel disorders when discussing disabilities related to major bodily functions, D'Arrigo said.
About a year ago, UMass Boston created a gluten-free zone in its food court, with a separate refrigerator, microwave, and toaster to minimize the risk of contamination.
Intolerance to gluten occurs on a sliding scale, with those suffering from extreme intolerance adhering to a strict diet. Gluten-free also typically means maintaining a stringent separation of food products.
“We have a separate cutting board and knife for people who want a gluten-free sandwich,” D’Arrigo said.