The Woes of Gluten-Free Dining

One writer speaks with students who adhere to gluten-free diets about their experiences eating in campus dining halls.

by Adriana James-Rodil | 5/25/22 2:05am

by Julia Levine / The Dartmouth Staff

Navigating Dartmouth Dining options can be a struggle at the best of times, but for those with dietary restrictions, this challenge can sometimes feel like a near-impossible feat. According to Dartmouth’s registered dietician for nutritional issues Elizabeth Rosenberger, approximately 30% of the campus adheres to a gluten-free diet — but how accessible is Dartmouth Dining for these students? 

Eli Friedman ’25 is one such gluten-free diner. Friedman has celiac disease, which means that consuming gluten will cause damage to his small intestine, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation website. Friedman expressed difficulties finding sufficient gluten-free options in campus dining halls. 

“We don’t have many consistent options available [at Foco] ... we don’t have a pizza station or pasta available on a regular basis,” Friedman said.

That is not to say, however, that DDS does not offer gluten-free options. Natalie Vann ’25, who is gluten intolerant, said that DDS does a “fine job” when it comes to providing gluten-free options. 

“I can always find something to eat, but sometimes the options are very dismal. So, it’s a lot of yogurt or salad,” Vann said.  

Currently, there is a dedicated gluten-free station at Foco, which Rosenberger said offers an entree, a side and a vegetable every day for lunch and dinner, as well as “grab and go” snacks. She also highlighted that students can request that certain food items be present at the gluten-free station; one student asked for a certain type of cereal they eat every day at home. 

Rosenberger also said that six weeks ago, the Board of Trustees approved the idea for an allergy-friendly station in Foco — and construction planning is currently underway. The station will consist of universal meals, meaning it will not contain any of the top nine allergens. Nothing will be removed in Foco, only reorganized, in order to accommodate this new addition, according to Rosenberger, and it will tentatively open in winter or spring of next year.  

There have been mixed feelings from students upon hearing about the opening of an allergy-friendly station. Vann, for one, was excited about the addition of this allergy-friendly station. 

“I think that sounds like a good idea if it can be kept clean and separate ... I hope that they are successful because that would be beneficial for me,” said Vann. 

However, not every student was as enthusiastic. Friedman worried that the existence of a catch-all allergy-friendly station would decrease the caliber of the food offerings. 

“I find that very annoying,” Friedman said. “Combining … is easier for them because they have to have less options, but it really decreases the quality of food. For example, gluten-free baked goods actually taste pretty similar most of the time, but when you get rid of the eggs and butter, it becomes significantly worse.” 

When Foco stations serve gluten-free foods, the meals will be labeled as such. However, Vann noted that the availability of gluten-free foods at Foco’s major stations is currently inconsistent. 

“When the food in the other areas like the vegetarian section and Ma Thayer’s is gluten free, I feel very good because I have a lot of options, but on the days when it’s not ... it’s hit or miss at Foco,” Vann said. 

However, for some gluten-free diners, even foods that do not technically contain gluten as an ingredient can still cause problems. Elaine Sarazen ’25 has celiac disease, and she stressed that cross contamination — that is, when gluten touches another dish or meal — is another impediment to being able to eat in campus dining halls. 

“For me, being gluten-free doesn’t mean that I just cannot eat bread. For example, if you cook a flour quesadilla on a pan, I shouldn’t be eating something off that pan afterwards,” Sarazen said. 

Risk of cross contamination with gluten-rich foods and lack of space are contributors to the limited gluten-free options, according to Rosenberger. For example, gluten-free bread cannot be offered at the deli station because it is a small space, and there is a risk of cross contact. 

There are also gluten-free options in other dining halls, such as Collis Cafe, where students can request gluten-free stir-fry and pasta, according to Rosenberger. Smoothies can also be made to be free of gluten at Collis. However, the Collis specials are usually not free of gluten, as Lina Klinkenberg ’25, who is gluten intolerant, pointed out. 

“At Collis, normally the special has gluten and all the pastries have gluten as well. They never make gluten-free pastries,” Klinkenberg said.

At Novack Cafe, Ramekin and the Fern, there are some gluten-free sandwiches and salads, according to Rosenberger. 

“Novack is the worst ... I know they have pre-made [gluten-free] sandwiches, but they’re simply not good,”  Friedman said.

Klinkenberg expressed similar sentiments in regards to the campus cafes, such as Novack — which becomes especially frustrating when one is in the library studying.

“Sometimes they have a couple salads, but really nothing good,” she said. 

Rosenberger added that Novack and Ramekin in particular “always keep some gluten-free muffins or bagels on hand,” but they are not usually displayed because of lack of space and demand. However, this leads some gluten-free eaters to assume there are no gluten-free pastries offered. 

“I did not know that. That’s awesome,”  Klinkenberg said, after learning about the gluten-free pastries.

Rosenberger said that Dartmouth Dining tries to highlight information regarding gluten-free options on different platforms in order to reach a wide audience, such as the DDS homepage. 

“We do try, but we could always do better,” said Rosenberger. 

According to Rosenberger, students with allergies also have access to a meal order app, which contains a static menu of a variety of gluten-free foods, such as vegetables, breakfast options and gluten-free pizza and pasta. The app also provides an option to select that the food be packaged or plated separately from other foods in order to minimize cross contact, according to Rosenberger. In order to have access to the app, students must reach out to Rosenberger to be entered into the database. 

While gluten-free dining can sometimes be a struggle, change is on the horizon. Although only time will tell, perhaps upcoming changes can relieve the stress of finding gluten-free options on campus.