While many college first years are concerned with gaining the dreaded “freshman 15” pounds in their first semester living away from home, for Jordan — whose name has been changed to keep his health conditions confidential — the “freshman 15” has been his to lose.
For Jordan and other students with gluten sensitivities, ongoing cross-contamination in the University’s residential college dining halls has brought major health consequences, despite the precautions Yale Hospitality takes to avoid it. Some students report dealing with fatigue, nausea, joint pain and gastrointestinal problems — such as vomiting and constipation. When Jordan eats gluten, his body becomes unable to absorb proper nutrients for several weeks or even months.
“I’ve lost like 15 pounds, and I can positively tell you it’s not due to exercise,” Jordan said.
The University’s measures to avoid gluten cross-contamination include dedicated gluten-free sections in each of its 14 residential dining halls and specialized meal plans for students. Yale Hospitality retains two full-time staffers dedicated to nutrition, wellness and allergy prevention, and these employees — along with dining hall managers — meet with students on an individual basis to develop personalized plans.
According to Adam Millman, senior director of residential dining, meal plans are unique, and they differ widely depending on the severity of students’ allergies. The plans range from dining hall staff members separating plates of food to avoid cross-contamination on the hot bar to dining hall managers accompanying students through the line to explain what they can or cannot eat.
“The safety of our students is our number-one priority,” Millman said. “Our teams work tirelessly to ensure that students are safe. Our policy is individualized for each student based on their need.”
Millman added that all dining staffers are trained with AllerTrain, a national allergy education and certification program. Yale also employs a “robust signage program,” keeps purple allergen kits designed to prevent contamination during the cooking process, and offers designated gluten-free food products and a separate toaster in each of the dining halls, Millman said. In addition, the dining halls recently began serving “gluten-friendly” grilled cheese sandwiches at grill stations.
Still, Millman noted that it is particularly difficult to prevent “student-level” allergy cross-contamination because students often rush through lines and use the same serving instrument at multiple stations.
Jordan recalled witnessing a student put the peanut butter from the gluten-free section on a bagel, which contained gluten. Unlike some of his peers, Jordan recognized that this act contaminated the entire jar of peanut butter, he said.
Though he did eat the spreads in the gluten-free section for the first few months of the school year, he has since reassessed the risks of cross-contamination, and he now considers these foods more prone to contamination than items from the hot food bar. As a result, Jordan now avoids much of the food in the gluten-free section.
“It kind of is a judgment call every time,” Jordan said with regards to his dining decisions. “I have definitely been ill to a certain degree since coming here.”
Laurel Humphreys ’23 has suffered from near-constant pain from cross-contamination since coming to Yale, she said. Humphreys has celiac disease — an autoimmune disease which causes small intestine damage when she eats gluten. According to Humphreys, she has been “badly glutened” three times, even though she does her best to avoid contamination in the dining halls.
Humphreys explained that even a small amount of gluten cross-contamination can cause symptoms in someone with celiac disease. If a student has an item with gluten on their plate and touches a serving spoon to it before returning that spoon to the dish it was in, that small amount of gluten could make her ill.
She said that for her, being “badly glutened” means ingesting enough gluten to “incapacitate” her due to joint pain. She added that because celiac is an autoimmune disease, the symptoms from consuming gluten will linger for months, and can inflict permanent damage on her small intestine.
“It took me a whole semester to sort of admit that I have just as much of a right to eat food as the other students here,” she said.
The past two times Humphreys was “glutened” both occurred this month, after she started a new plan to prevent cross-contamination by having dining hall staff separate her food before putting it onto the hot bar. Humphreys said that ideally, Yale would subsidize her making her own food so she could ensure it was gluten free.
Melissa Roberts, Yale Dining communications manager, said that Yale Hospitality strives to create a welcoming community and does not want students to feel secluded based on their allergies like an elementary school student at a “peanut-free table.”
Still, other universities diverge from Yale in that they separate dining facilities for those with gluten intolerance or with other food allergies. Humphreys pointed to Cornell University, which has a 100 percent-certified gluten-free dining facility as well as gluten-free stations and options in its other dining halls.
Humphreys said she is part of a group chat with 14 other students with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity. In the chat, Humphreys said, the students warn one another when a station at a dining hall is contaminated.
“I feel like a good enough part of Yale’s campus is gluten free for this to matter, and I don’t know why it hasn’t been addressed,” Humphreys said.
Jennie Miller ’23, who does not have celiac but is sensitive to both gluten and dairy, has Davenport College dining hall staff prepare gluten-free options for her. In addition, they cover the plates in plastic wrap to avoid cross-contamination.
“Davenport has been amazing,” Miller said.
Still, she noted that other students with food restrictions seem unaware that the dining halls offer these specialized meal plans.
Yale-at-large tries to encourage employees of the dining hall to make a concerted effort to help students who face dietary restrictions. In November 2019, Crystal Coleman — a cook in Timothy Dwight College — received a Linda Lorimer Award for Distinguished Service from University President Peter Salovey. Millman said that Coleman received the award “for her one-on-one work with students with allergies to make sure that they have a wide variety of foods that are safe for them, that are nutritious for them and that meet their needs and expectations.”
In turn, Yale Hospitality encourages students with allergies to register with Student Accessibility Services, complete the Yale Hospitality dietary accommodations form and arrange an appointment with a Yale Hospitality-registered dietitian to develop an individualized plan.
Yale Dining serves over 14,000 meals each day.
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