In October 2009,students sued Lesley University for failing to offer adequate dining accommodations for those affected by celiac disease and other food allergies. Thanks to the Department of Justice, on Dec. 20, 2012, Lesley signed an agreement to “ensure that students with celiac disease and other food allergies can fully and equally enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
According to the Justice Department, “food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA” because they can cause severe reactions such as anaphylaxis and permanent, potentially life-threatening internal damage. So, though USC’s dining halls do offer several options for gluten-free students, it is imperative that the university ensure its labelling practices and menu offerings are up to par.
USC might assume that most students choose to eat gluten-free for the apparent health benefits: gluten-free diets reportedly contribute to weight loss, increased alertness, decreased bloating and more. Consequently, because some gluten-free foods are considerably more expensive than standard dining hall grub, the university would be sustaining a supply of extremely costly meals mostly so students could join in on another diet fad.
Though gluten-free diets might be on the rise, to use this as a basis for the few gluten-free dining options would be to ignore the harsher reality: those with celiac disease really don’t have a choice. In fact, for them, even the smallest contact with gluten can have dangerous consequences.
While dining halls offer gluten-free offerings, they are not always labelled, requiring celiac students to ask workers to ensure that foods labelled as gluten-free are, in fact, free of the allergen. USC should make it a priority to mark each dish served in the dining halls accurately every single day. It should also label other potential allergy-triggering foods, such as dairy, instead of limiting it to gluten.
And to ensure that only those who truly need it have access to allergen-free foods, USC could borrow from its crosstown rival: UCLA requires students to provide medical documentation in order to gain keycard access to a pantry containing a toaster, microwave, refrigerator and gluten-free foods. The university currently offers all meal-plan students access to gluten-free foods, but requiring students to remain so vigilant to maintain their dietary needs, when students who live in certain USC dorms or apartments are required to pay for meal plans, isn’t right.
Several more colleges have successfully implemented changes to meet the needs of students with allergies. The greatest drawback of introducing these gluten-free dining options is undoubtedly the cost. Boston University’s pantry cost $6,500 to equip, while its kitchen, open to all 10,000 students on the meal plan, cost $47,000. UCLA’s pantry cost more than $16,000 and services about 30 of the 10,000 students on the meal plan. But from public school to private school, the expenses are a small price to pay in order to ensure the health and safety of all.
If USC were to follow suit and install gluten-free stations on its campus, rather than merely offering some gluten-free options, it should charge all students, regardless of allergy, the standard meal plan prices and cover the extra cost, as did the University of New Hampshire, Durham.
USC’s responsibility is to nurture, but when it comes to students with food allergies, there is much room to grow. Intellectual and physical well-being is at stake whenever getting a balanced meal is made difficult, and it’s even more important in the face of specific dietary needs.
Lauren Wong is a freshman majoring in communication.