Two years after Yale Dining implemented new picture-based allergen labels, some students with allergies still doubt its ability to accommodate their needs.
In December 2012, responding to a student’s allergic reaction to mislabeled food, Yale Dining added allergen stickers to its food labels, which had previously only included ingredient and nutritional information. The stickers depict common allergens such as egg, soy and fish to help students with allergies identify foods that could be dangerous to them.
Despite these changes, however, the system has seen little improvement, said Robert Batista ’15, who suffers from food allergies and wrote a column in the News three weeks ago titled “Don’t Trust Yale’s Food.”
“[Before,] ingredient lists were usually more complete, but allergen listings were either not there or obviously wrong,” Batista told the News. “Now it’s reversed — ingredient lists are not even there sometimes and the allergen labels are these pictures. It was something they advertised as an enhancement. I wouldn’t say it’s worse, but it’s definitely not any better.”
Batista, who has several food allergies, criticized the frequent mislabeling of foods that could trigger reactions — for example, mixing up butter and margarine — as indicative of Yale Dining’s “lax and generally apathetic” attitude toward allergy accommodations.
Alexa Little ’16, who suffers from a severe tree nut allergy, voiced similar concerns. Little said that in addition to having trouble finding breads and desserts that are nut-free and not cross-contaminated, she has been frustrated by her attempts to ask members of Yale Dining to improve its accommodations.
Little said she began emailing various dining hall managers last spring, and she has also contacted Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke SOM ’86 and Director of the Resource Office on Disabilities Judith York — asking them to have accommodations ready for her when she returned to campus in the fall.
In emails Little provided to the News, both York and Van Dyke told her there was no need to make preparations in advance and reassured her that appropriate accommodations would be ready when she arrived on campus.
However, Little said that when she arrived on campus in August, nothing was ready, and her diet was still restricted to the limited items that she was sure were not cross-contaminated.
While Van Dyke did not respond to requests for comment specifically on labeling issues, she wrote in an email that she has worked individually with many students with food restrictions.
“Meeting the needs of students with allergies is of utmost priority for Yale Dining,” she said. “There is no single aspect of my job that is more important to me.”
Student dining assistant Horacio Herrera ’15 said that each dining hall is given two nutrition cards for every dish, one of which can be updated on site.
In response to the suggestion that students can reach out individually to their dining hall managers with concerns, Little said this should not be the onus of students. She said having to wait for food to be specially prepared for her — another suggestion Van Dyke gave — is “socially isolating.”
Evy Behling ’17, another student with allergies, said that while she has not had any seriously negative experiences with Yale Dining, she also finds the lack of consistent labeling problematic. She added that she, too, sees having to seek special attention as an inconvenience.
“It’s always an option to ask the manager to get things in detail, but it can be very irritating to have to do that all the time,” Behling said. “You want to just grab your food and eat like any other person without allergies.”
Between 60 and 120 students at Yale have reported food allergies, according to various Yale Dining surveys.
Correction: Nov. 23
A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed comments to a dining hall manager who was not interviewed for this story.