Perhaps the first challenge will be establishing a relationship with the people who manage the food services on campus. Although public understanding of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are on the fast track, the level of training for gluten free food service is still on the slow track. A thorough understanding on the part of food management usually comes through one or more managers having a relative with the condition. Liability issues still concern corporate management of food service. Until the term gluten-free is clearly defined through FDA labeling laws, many companies are hesitant to establish true gluten free programs.
After 30 years in food service, I can personally attest that most people in the food service profession want to provide good and healthy service to their customers. Many managers work much more than the typical 40 hour work week in just that endeavor. Making customers happy is an integral part of being in the hospitality industry. However, the biggest problem presented by the gluten free dilemma is the widespread contamination of wheat in products where it naturally should not be. The processed food additives in most commercial mixes and flavorings are a huge roadblock to immediate implementation of gluten free programs. Manufacturers are getting the message that customers want gluten free products and will provide them for commercial clients in time.
Working with food service on cross contamination issues should be a pleasant experience. However, it will be a continual learning process for both food service management and the gluten free student. Campus food service is one of the primary employers for students on, or near, college campuses. Flexible hours and close location form a workforce that is beneficial for both students and employer. The temporary nature of food service staff may result in a different person on a food station much more often than would happen in a restaurant. The server may just be starting their full round of training and may not be knowledgeable in gluten free food handling.
The gluten free student will have to be vigilant about cross contamination and talk frequently with the food service management. They will also need to have patience in working with service and cooking staff so that all may learn and benefit. The term “gluten free ambassador” is descriptive of being on the front line of changing how food is prepared and served for all gluten free students on college campuses. Just remember, college food service wants you as a customer. They will try to meet your needs and will learn along with you.
Another opportunity for education and learning interpersonal skills will be with your roommate. I have never seen a spacious dorm room. The high value of real estate on most college campuses extends to the dorm rooms as well. There will not be a lot of room for foods or duplicate cooking appliances for cross contamination purposes. You should plan to discuss your needs well in advance with the University Department responsible for housing.
The new college student will be presented with daily opportunities to go off the gluten free diet. However, the biggest temptation will be the variety of foods available to you in the college cafeteria. Seeing gluten-laden foods for the first time (for some students) can be a powerful draw to experiment and experience. It would be wise to create an action plan to prevent lapses into the gluten-filled world. Knowing that you have gluten free foods available in your dorm room or apartment to curb a snack attack is essential. You must be firm in your mind that your food choices are the same as any other person – you just actively choose the gluten free items.
The college experience is a time of tremendous personal growth. It is also a time of great learning and life long friendships that shouldn’t be sidetracked by illness. Gluten free students will continually test and create new facets of a lifestyle that is only beginning to be felt on most campuses. Plan ahead and carry patience in your back pocket.