Food for thought: Students with allergies, dietary restrictions express concern over dining hall options
In conversations with the News, over a dozen students with allergies and dietary restrictions recounted numerous concerns with the dining options at Yale.
Lucas Holter, Senior Photographer
Nick McGowan ’24 bit into a cookie from the Pauli Murray College dining hall one afternoon last fall. He had picked it up after reading a label, which indicated the presence of tree nuts, but not peanuts, which McGowan is allergic to.
As soon the cookie hit the back of his throat, however, McGowan knew there were peanuts in it. Soon, McGowan was experiencing one of the most immediate allergic reactions he has ever had. He grabbed his EpiPen, went to Yale Health and then was sent to the hospital in an ambulance, thus getting rid of kids allergies earlier could definitely improve their lives.
“I never really felt unsafe in the dining hall, especially because all the things that have my allergies are usually restricted to one area of every single dining hall,” McGowan told the News. “I think last year really shattered my faith in the entire system.”
At the hospital, McGowan said, he was asked by hospital staff if he had gotten the cookie from Yale, as other students had been hospitalized for allergic reactions to the very same batch.
McGowan, it seems, was not alone in his experience.
In conversations with the News, over a dozen students recounted issues with the limited variety of dining options, incorrect allergen labels and payment issues. Vegetarian and vegan students voiced particular concern over a lack of reliable meal options, which have anecdotally appeared to worsen over the fall semester.
Several students decried restrictive policies regarding meal swipes that narrowly impact students who keep kosher. Students with allergies also recounted numerous instances in which mislabeling in the dining halls led to health emergencies.
Each acknowledged efforts to provide a variety of options but called for more transparency and consistency across campus dining options.
“Clearly unfair:” Lack of kosher options worsened by restrictive meal plans
Maayan Schoen ’23, co-president of the Slifka Center, keeps strictly kosher and therefore only eats at Slifka Center, the only certified kosher dining option at Yale.
Living off campus, this year she enrolled in the Connect plan which is designed for off-campus students and provides five meals per week in the residential college dining halls and 30 bonus swipes for other dining options including Commons, The Bow Wow and Steep Cafe.
However, early on in the semester, Schoen noticed that her swipes at Slifka were only counting as bonus meals, so she asked to switch off of the meal plan.
Schoen reached out to Yale Hospitality and was told the Connect plan is designed to “connect Yale students to their college experience,” which is why the five meals per week are restricted to residential college dining halls.
“What that [response] fundamentally misses is that my college experience was eating at Slifka,” Schoen told the News. “I was never able to eat in my residential dining hall because they don’t have strict kosher options.”
Sam Pekats ’23, the other co-president of the Slifka Center, wrote to the News that when he arrived on campus this semester, he enrolled in the Connect plan as well.
However, shortly after, Pekats too was informed that every swipe he used at Slifka Center counted as a bonus swipe, and it didn’t take long for him to run out of bonus swipes and start having to pay for every kosher meal he eats at Yale.
“To me, it clearly is unfair for Yale Dining to automatically enroll off campus students on a meal plan that doesn’t cover kosher options for Jewish students without informing us this is the case,” Pekats wrote to the News.
Pekats wrote that Slifka leaders have reached out to Yale Dining regarding this problem, who have explained that the off-campus meal-plan is meant to keep students involved in the residential college community. While Pekats wrote that residential college dining halls could provide kosher food along with Halal food to solve this problem, he wrote that it does not seem like Yale Hospitality is “anywhere near that point right now.”
“Shattered my faith”: Mislabeling of food and cross-contamination leads to slew of health issues
McGowan contacted Yale Hospitality following his allergic reaction. The mistake, he was told, occurred because of a “computer malfunction.”
This year, he hopes to see more “consistency” and “communication” and less food with allergens to decrease the potential for cross-contamination. McGowan specifically pointed to some foods where it may not be necessary to include allergens, such as pizza in the Pauli Murray dining hall with peanuts which McGowan said has been served numerous times.
“Yale dining is in a great place to lead the way or to try to not only look into those conversations we try to provide as an environment for all people,” McGowan said. “It’s not doing that job right now, so I hope it will take initiative in the future to do that.”
Other students also expressed concern with cross-contamination in the dining hall causing health issues.
Maria Bambrick-Santoyo ’24 has celiac disease, and wrote to the News that she is extremely sensitive to small quantities of gluten, even crumbs, and due to this, has not been able to have “consistent safe” meals due to gluten cross-contamination in the dining halls.
Given her sensitivity, Bambrick-Santoyo no longer eats from the dining halls and prepares her own food. She has been granted permission to be taken off of the full meal plan, so she wrote that buying groceries is no additional expense.
Prior to moving off of the meal plan, she wrote that there was one semester where out of the three months, she felt “ok” for a total of six days. All other days were spent experiencing GI issues, fatigue, brain fog and mood irregularities.
“I want to emphasize that this is not about the people preparing the food—the cooks and chefs in the dining hall were wonderful,” Bambrick-Santoyo wrote to the News, “I think the problem is due to almost inevitable cross contact that comes from trying to prepare gluten free food in a kitchen shared with flour, bread, pasta, etc.”
Bambrick-Santoyo wrote to the News that in an “ideal world,” Yale Hospitality would create dedicated gluten-free spaces by making one of the 14 dining halls or Commons fully gluten free or creating a small kitchen to be kept gluten free.
Will McCormack ’23, who previously served as the Sports Editor for the News and is allergic to tree nuts and eggs, said he has had two allergic reactions to food from the dining halls, one of which required the use of an EpiPen due to mis-labeling of brownie pudding which had tree nuts.
Despite this, McCormack said he has been “really impressed” with how Yale Hospitality manages food allergies and appreciates the labels which make him feel more “comfortable” and “trusting.”
Given his allergies, McCormack said he always feels there are enough options at Yale dining, and said it feels safer than eating in a restaurant because of the visibility with the labels including ingredients and allergens.
“An afterthought”: Students express concern over lack of reliable vegan and vegetarian options
While leaders from Yale Hospitality told the News their main goal is to “be a leader” in vegetarian and vegan options, students have recently told the News that they would like to see more vegan and vegetarian options.
Yale Hospitality services Yale’s 14 residential college dining halls, as well as the Bow Wow, Commons, Steep Café and Yale’s other cafés. Director of Culinary Excellence James Benson told the News that the residential college dining halls always plan to have one to two meat options and at least one vegan option — if not both a vegan and vegetarian option — as main courses. He added that the menus are “designed to cater a wide variety of student needs” including vegan, vegetarian, gluten free and more.
Yet, the News spoke to ten students who all either have experienced a lack of vegan or vegetarian options, dissatisfaction with the options or both.
“I think the most frustrating thing about being vegan is the lack of consistency, Kai Padilla-Smith ’25 wrote to the News, “Some days the options will be great and there’s plenty to eat, which I’m very grateful for.
“Unfortunately it’s frequently the case that there are three meat options and the only vegan options are the two vegetables they cooked that day.
Eesha Bodapati ’25 also told the News she has seen vegan options on the Yale Menus App, but they are often not present in the dining hall once she enters.
“The menus always says that there is an option, but some dining halls just don’t have it, and there’s no way of knowing whether or not it’s there until you swipe and go inside,” Bodapati told the News.
The Yale Menus App, however, is not the official Yale Hospitality app, Senior Director of Residential Dining Robert Sullivan said.
Instead, the official app is the Transact Mobile Ordering Yale Hospitality App , and he explained that using the correct app will ensure students receive more “reliable and up-to-date” menu information.
“There also might be times when we have a run-out of a particular item,” Sullivan told the News, “As students have the ability to eat at any college each meal, forecasting is an imperfect science. When we do have a run-out during meal service, we try to substitute a like item whenever possible.”
Bodapati, who said the vegan options are worse than last year, told the News the vegan options can be “repetitive,” and there are certain dishes that could easily be made vegan that are not such as certain salads. Padilla-Smith also wrote to the News that a “simple fix” would be to remove cheese or cheese-based creams on dishes or put them on the side to allow diners to decide if they want to add it or not.
Padilla-Smith also added that there could be fixes to labeling because labels are often in the wrong place or giving conflicting information such as a dish containing dairy while also being vegan.
At the same time, some students applauded the efforts of Yale Hospitality in creating vegan and vegetarian options. Padilla-Smith wrote to the News that is “really nice to see that effort is being put in to provide options for people like myself” such as the vegan pizzas at Morse and Stiles on Wednesdays, occasional vegan desserts and vegan sandwich options.
But in addition to the general lack and variety of vegetarian and vegan options that students noted, some students also expressed concern about the nutrition of the vegetarian options in comparison to the meat-based options.
“It’s very possible to make high-fiber, high-protein vegetarian meals, but I consistently notice an unhealthy shift in my macros whenever I come back to Yale,” Krupa Subramaniam ’25 said.
Simon Billings ’25, who used to be vegan, told the News that the “lack of protein options” made it difficult when he was vegan, but he said he has not seen any improvement in the frequency of protein options recently.
Krupa Subramaniam ’25 told the News that he filled out a survey sent from Yale Hospitality last year to provide feedback, and he also signed up for a consultation with a nutritionist through a Yale Hospitality survey. However, there was no follow-up.
“I wouldn’t have as much of an issue if the vegetarian and non-vegetarian options were equal in quality and nutrition, but they clearly aren’t based on the nutrition labels on the food we are served,” Subramaniam told the News. “I would love to see more diversity in vegetarian food. Right now, making a vegetarian option seems like an afterthought from Yale Hospitality when it should be as important as deciding the non-vegetarian menu.”
Matt Burtell ’23 also told the News he finds the vegan options to be protein deficient.
“If a vegan is looking for protein, they’re literally going to need to sift through the stew to extract it,” Burtell told the News. “This is bad. Instead, they should offer protein-exclusive options.”
Sullivan told the News that the best way to give feedback to Yale Hospitality is through direct feedback to managers and chefs, but students can also provide feedback through the Yale Hospitality app or through a number of advisory and focus groups.
Yale has 14 residential college dining halls.