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  • Joanne Bradley
    Joanne Bradley

    Challenges for the Gluten-Free College Student


    Celiac.com 06/13/2008 - Students embarking on the college path often ride a roller coaster between sheer unadulterated excitement and deep-in-the-stomach dread of meeting new people and challenges. For the gluten free college student, a whole world of eating choices will await them in all sorts of different social situations. It is a new cornucopia of responsible choice.

    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.


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    Guest shirley curriston

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    This was a pretty basic article for someone who is gluten free. I was hoping for a little more information with the issue as we have a son going to college for the first time.

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    I wasn't diagnosed with celiac disease until my freshman year of college. I had been at school for a little under a month when I finally noticed all my symptoms. Thankfully I have a relative with celiac, so I basically knew what I had.

    The cooks were more than willing to prepare food that I could eat. Unfortunately, there were many meals that they accidentally overlooked my situation. There was always a salad bar available, but having salad day after day without any other form of food substance is not in any way appealing.

    Over the years I learned to communicate my needs better to the cook. But they were still human, and occasionally forgot, in those instances I kept a stash of gluten-free food in my dorm.

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    My college has nothing for Celiacs. In fact the dietitian told all of the Celiacs on campus to bring their own food. I'm glad to hear that other campuses are more understanding.

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    I wasn't diagnosed with celiac disease until my freshman year of college. I had been at school for a little under a month when I finally noticed all my symptoms. Thankfully I have a relative with celiac, so I basically knew what I had.

    The cooks were more than willing to prepare food that I could eat. Unfortunately, there were many meals that they accidentally overlooked my situation. There was always a salad bar available, but having salad day after day without any other form of food substance is not in any way appealing.

    Over the years I learned to communicate my needs better to the cook. But they were still human, and occasionally forgot, in those instances I kept a stash of gluten-free food in my dorm.

    Can you tell me what gluten-free food you had for your dorm? I recently found out I have Celiac disease and I'm a college freshman living in a dorm. It's really hard to find food I can eat since I'm so used to eating ravioli, mac-n-cheese, and ramen noodles everyday.

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    My college has nothing for Celiacs. In fact the dietitian told all of the Celiacs on campus to bring their own food. I'm glad to hear that other campuses are more understanding.

    The issue of college students with celiac disease that are required to live in the dorm and purchase a meal plan is uncharted territory. Before your child chooses a school make sure they speak with the food service contractor. There is not one single gluten-free breakfast cereal offered at my daughters cafeteria and despite going through the disabilities office, they have refused to add any. College is a big adjustment and those of you with celiac disease have huge challenges. My heart goes out to you.

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    I wasn't diagnosed with celiac disease until my freshman year of college. I had been at school for a little under a month when I finally noticed all my symptoms. Thankfully I have a relative with celiac, so I basically knew what I had.

    The cooks were more than willing to prepare food that I could eat. Unfortunately, there were many meals that they accidentally overlooked my situation. There was always a salad bar available, but having salad day after day without any other form of food substance is not in any way appealing.

    Over the years I learned to communicate my needs better to the cook. But they were still human, and occasionally forgot, in those instances I kept a stash of gluten-free food in my dorm.

    What were the symptoms you were experiencing your freshman year of college?

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    I believe my son is celiac like me, but both he and I dread the task of getting him used to eating a different meal than his classmates, especially since they serve family style. The school is likely to Accommodate him with special meals, buy there is no food service on weekends and his program is so rigorous that he has no time go cook. I know he could do it, bit it souls be burdensome. Until his symptoms worsen, I don't think he will.

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  • About Me

    Author of Gluten Free Success for the College Studentand other specialty publications, I am a career food service manager and chef, diagnosed with gluten and dairy intolerance in 2004. I publish the website GFCollegeStudent.com for gluten free college students and parents as well as blog on this subject at gfcollegestudent.blogspot.com. I am dedicated to bridging the gap for special situations in food allergy using my decades of food service experience.

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