In response to an increase in students with allergies on campus, Yale Dining has been working to increase the accuracy and clarity of its labeling.
Recently, dining hall labels have begun to include not only food ingredients, but allergen and lifestyle violation indicators as well. Director of Residential Dining Cathy Van Dyke said that while many universities avoid labeling dining hall food due to liability concerns, labeling is a central part of her job. Although there is always progress to be made, Van Dyke said Yale Dining recently increased label accuracy could prevent serious repercussions.
“Allergic students I work closely with — these people’s lives depend on our labeling, so we’ll be the first ones standing next to them,” she said “We try to get the labels as accurate as possible, but I tell students we can’t be everywhere.”
Issey Norman-Ross ’15, who is hypoglycemic and a celiac, said dining hall labels are accurate in some respects, but there is room for improvement in a variety of areas.
“They don’t state that steel cut oatmeal has gluten in it, but it’s not made with gluten free oats,” she said. “They also sometimes list [ingredients] not there — often chicken is listed as a sandwich, as it’s supposed to be eaten with bread, so that will say it has gluten in it when it doesn’t.”
But Van Dyke said the oatmeal does not contain gluten, which the sourcing manager is careful to avoid. She added that students who discover mistakes on recipe cards should inform her so that she can correct them as soon as possible.
Trumbull Dining Hall Manager Christine Centola said the importance of protecting students with allergies has risen, and Yale Dining has taken steps to train its employees on allergens.
“We take labeling very seriously, since there has been a huge increase in the number of students with allergies in the last five years,” she said. “We just had a great six-hour training session on food allergies for our head pantries and cooks.”
Silliman chef Stu Comen said that because students are allergic to a variety of substances, chefs on campus are cautious not to change recipes spontaneously. He said that if he runs out of a certain ingredient, he opts to leave it out rather than replace it with a potential allergen.
Comen added that adjusting recipe cards is a central part of the biweekly meetings that Yale Dining holds for its staff.
“Any product we use that comes from a company doesn’t have the nutritional values on it because it isn’t our recipe,” he said. “That’s why certain things — the ravioli, pizza dough — just say ravioli or pizza dough because they aren’t our recipes. They’re vendor products.”
Though improvements have been made in recent years to dining hall ingredient labels, several students interviewed have still noticed labeling errors.
Lauren Sapienza ’18, who is celiac and lactose intolerant, said there have been many cases in which she noticed labels only said “ingredients” and failed to give any other description. In other instances, she added, ingredient labels were missing altogether.
“If there’s a shadow of a doubt, I opt for the salad bar,” Sapienza said. “The salad bar is usually safe but the problem with that is there are no nutritional labels out for the dressing.”
Two weeks ago, the YCC approved a project seeking to correct mislabeled ingredients, led by Tyler Mikulis ’17, who also has celiac disease.
The project drew inspiration from a 2009 suit filed involving Lesley University, in which a student contested a lack of accommodations for celiacs and other students with allergies. Under the agreement reached by the Department of Justice and Lesley University, the university agreed to provide gluten- and allergen-free food options in the dining halls as well as display labels concerning any food allergies.
Although the Lesley case occurred six years ago, Van Dyke said the University’s General Counsel’s Office found Yale Dining already had been following all of its provisions.