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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: A Foco For All

Adding a new allergy-free food station is a good start, but Dartmouth Dining should continue working to accommodate students’ dietary restrictions.

Students who walk into Class of 1953 Commons have surely noticed one major change: Near the front of the dining hall, in place of the former sandwich station, is now “The A9” station, which serves food free of all top nine allergens — dairy, egg, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, soy and wheat. This station has been met with a variety of strong opinions, as well as some frustration that it was either unnecessary or insufficient for students whose dietary needs are still not met by the station. As an Editorial Board, we would like to express our view on the matter. Overall, we are excited that Dartmouth Dining has a food station that is more inclusive to students with food allergies, and we are impressed by the empathy and care that Dartmouth Dining puts into providing accommodations for students with dietary restrictions. However, we do have small suggestions to make the station, and Dartmouth Dining as a whole, generally more inclusive.

First, we want to acknowledge that for people with food allergies, a one-size-fits-all solution will never satisfy everyone. Everyone has different restrictions, allergy severities and tastes, which means that some solutions, while well-intentioned, may be inadequate for some. However, we feel that A9 is an admirable step toward making a single solution work for as many people as possible. Although some people may feel the station is unnecessary, the fact is that approximately 6.2% of U.S. adults have at least one food allergy — not including people who have food intolerances or non-allergy dietary restrictions. This may not seem like a large number, but if we view this statistic in terms of Dartmouth’s population, that equates to nearly 300 undergraduates. Unlike the previous gluten-free station, which was only helpful for students who cannot eat gluten, the nine foods that A9 avoids account for 90% of all food allergies. This station makes huge strides to make ’53 Commons accessible to all students.

Generally, we feel that Dartmouth Dining is incredibly accommodating to students with food allergies. One of our Editorial Board members is allergic to six out of the top nine allergens, legumes and has celiac disease — which means this member must also eat strictly gluten-free. Dartmouth Dining has a registered dietician who works one-on-one with that member, and many other students with food allergies, to help these students feel comfortable eating at Dartmouth Dining facilities with as few difficulties as possible. For example, Dartmouth Dining allows this Editorial Board member to order allergen-free food in advance at the Courtyard Cafe. In addition, although that member could not typically eat any food offered at Ramekin in Anonymous Hall, the dietician coordinated with the Dartmouth Dining staff to provide a frozen meal accessible at Ramekin for that student, as long as the student provided advanced notice they would be visiting the cafe. Handling so many students’ allergy needs can be a difficult task, but in this Editorial Board’s experience, many Dartmouth Dining staff members have been helpful and enthusiastic about working with students who are struggling with the existing dining options.

That said, in the article about the new A9 station, Dartmouth Dining executive chef Christopher Kaschak noted that Dartmouth Dining is seeking feedback from the student population. We wish to outline some suggestions for how Dartmouth Dining could further improve its accessibility. The first relates to instances of cross-contamination in ’53 Commons. We often see foods served that are technically free from ingredients with common allergens, but have been visibly contaminated by other nearby dishes which do contain those allergens. This further restricts the already limited options available to students who have severe allergies. While we recognize that ’53 Commons is primarily a self-serve model, and it is difficult to regulate cross-contamination without a Dartmouth Dining member running the station, we do think this issue is worth addressing in stations other than A9. Small changes, like putting up signage near stations asking students to only use tongs with their original dish or installing short barriers between different dishes at a station, could go a long way toward minimizing the chances of cross-contamination, even with the buffet style. This would open up a world of options for students who are limited not only by the foods that contain their allergens, but also by contamination with those ingredients. 

We also would like to highlight that the A9 station is not always helpful to students with allergies if any of those allergens are outside of the top nine. This includes students who are allergic to legumes — which is a category of foods including peanuts and soy, which are not used at A9, along with beans and peas, which are often used at A9. Although one member of our Editorial Board seems like the target audience for A9, they also have a legume allergy and often cannot take advantage of the station because of its frequent use of beans or peas. As indicated in our recent coverage on the A9 station, at least one other student with a legume allergy is experiencing the same issue. If Dartmouth Dining is working with multiple students with legume allergies, for example, then it makes sense to tailor the offerings of the A9 to avoid legumes as well. While we recognize that it is impossible to please everyone, we would like to see Dartmouth Dining tailor its allergen-free offerings to ensure that those students who actually need such a station can benefit from it. 

In addition, because the A9 station does not cover all potential allergens, we want to stress that the workers at A9 must be well-informed on the ingredients in the dishes served. In the same A9 article, a student with a legume allergy was incorrectly informed that a dish served did not contain peas, and that student suffered an allergic reaction as a consequence of this misinformation. At every station at ’53 Commons — and especially at the station designed to provide allergy-safe food — dining workers should be educated on the precise ingredients in a meal and able to provide accurate information to a student with questions. We appreciate that full ingredients lists are available on Dartmouth Dining’s website, and that is an incredibly helpful resource for students seeking allergen information. However, there are rare cases when the website can be unreliable — members of this Editorial Board have gone to ’53 Commons on occasion and found different menu items served than the ones on the website. While the website may not always have up-to-date information, whoever is working at the station should be able to provide allergen information, or at the very least refrain from spreading misinformation that could seriously harm someone.

Furthermore, we ask Dartmouth Dining to bring back the gluten-free freezer in some form — but perhaps this time as a freezer for anyone with allergies to use. Prior to A9’s opening, ’53 Commons had a dedicated gluten-free freezer, which held frozen, gluten-free meals that students could heat up at ’53 Commons. With 53 Commons’ rotating menu, it can be tricky to find a safe meal that is always available. Bringing back this freezer, but expanding the options so it includes not only gluten-free meals, but other allergen-friendly meals at the request of students, would provide students with dietary restrictions a reliable option at ’53 Commons.

We applaud Dartmouth Dining’s efforts to accommodate students with allergies and dietary restrictions, and A9 is a huge step forward in providing a safe, reliable option for students who need it. Yet, there is still more to be done, and we hope Dartmouth Dining will consider this feedback to make campus dining halls a safer, more accessible environment for all.