This post offers insights for parents and students with celiac disease navigating the complex college search process. It discusses how to find universities that offer safe and nourishing gluten-free dining options and essential strategies for surviving campus life on a gluten-free diet. Please note that some names were changed to protect individuals. Please see my disclosures.
Sam Cook was diagnosed with celiac disease when he was just 14 years old.
While the diagnosis, and subsequent strict gluten-free diet treatment, were challenging for the teen, he had a supportive family that made the burdensome gluten-free lifestyle more bearable.
That all changed when Sam moved 500 miles from home to attend a university in the Midwest.
There, he experienced the challenges and harsh realities of managing celiac disease away from home.
Of course, Sam and his mom, Angela, vetted various college campuses. When Sam narrowed his search, the university assured them his dietary needs would be met with “equitable” and “nourishing” gluten-free options.
However, what Sam found at school vastly differed from what he was promised.
“Reality can be very different when it comes to living day in and day out as a celiac on campus,” he lamented. “What they say and what they do are two different things.”
While Sam’s school utilizes Sodexo’s allergen-friendly Simple Servings program (more on that below), he found that the meals were “low-quality” and “not tasty.” There was nothing “equitable” and “nourishing” about them.
On top of that, Sam says all freshmen and sophomores must live on campus and purchase a $3,000 meal plan. He purchased one his freshman year because he had no other food options.
“My health suffered as a result of the school’s poor food quality. I became ill almost every week and experienced severe digestive issues. The meals served were basic and repetitive, consisting mainly of meat, dairy, rice, and salads. There was never any variety, and the gluten-free options were limited. If the food was bad, we had no choice but to eat it,” he says.
Unfortunately, Sam’s story resembles the stories of other college kids who struggle to navigate campus life with celiac disease.
Maryam Shafa discovered she had celiac disease a year and a half into college at Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, Washington.
As soon as she found out, she spoke with the kitchen staff, and she said the chef offered to make her food.
“It seemed like a great idea, having the chef make my food each time so I knew it was safe. That wasn’t how it actually happened. They had student workers make my food, and in many instances, I got glutened. I didn’t feel it was safe to eat [there],” she said.
Maryam was also required to purchase a meal plan, despite having a doctor’s note explicitly stating her sensitivity to gluten cross-contamination.
Schools Are Working Towards Change
While Sam and Maryam are just two of the many cases of students with celiac disease struggling to find safe food options, many campuses are working towards accommodating gluten-free and food-allergy students.
Quintina Reddington is the National Health, Wellness, and Nutrition Manager for Sodexo’s U.S. Campus segment. Sodexo is one of the three major food service providers for colleges and universities in the U.S., providing dining services to 500+ college campuses.
Of the 500+ campuses serviced by Sodexo, the company’s allergen programs, known as Simple Servings and Simply 3, are only found at approximately 170 schools.
“Each year we see more and more universities asking for food allergy programming as well as disabilities offices that are seeking to partner with the dining management team to provide the best accommodation solution for students,” she says, citing that the Lesley and Rider University cases, both of which protect students with food allergies under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), are pushing colleges to change.
Reddington says these cases “have pushed colleges and universities to ensure students can dine in a safe and inclusive environment.” However, Angela (Sam’s mom) says schools “are not yet there.”
For background, in 2009, a handful of Lesley University students with celiac disease sued the school for requiring them to purchase the mandatory meal plan despite not being offered safe, gluten-free options.
The court ruled that students still had to pay for a meal plan but that Lesley University must “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 (ADA).”
Today, Lesley University says on its website that it provides an “inclusive dining experience” and offers vegan, vegetarian, halal, kosher, and food for students with dietary restrictions and allergies.
Change Is Not Coming Fast Enough
While changes are happening, they’re not happening fast enough to accommodate the more than 100,000 incoming freshmen students with food allergies, celiac disease, and gluten intolerances.
Case in point, seven years after the Lesley ruling, Rider University was found in violation of gluten-free students’ ADA rights after forcing students with celiac disease and gluten disorders to purchase the school’s mandatory meal plan but not offering safe and satisfactory options.
While thousands of colleges and universities scramble to adopt allergen-friendly protocols, the truth is that these protocols don’t always fit into the daily realities of campus dining.
Staff turnover and student workers can undo a university’s progress, leaving gluten-free students in the lurch. There is no room for mistakes when a student’s health hangs in the balance.
Reddington says that Sodexo takes food allergies “very seriously,” and each school they work with has at least one manager trained and certified in food allergies.
“For those accounts that feature any of our Simple Servings solutions, we ensure every manager and chef is certified, and every frontline employee receives food allergy training developed by our registered dietitians,” she says. “We also re-train every frontline employee and manager with a refresher class at the beginning of each semester to ensure the safety of our programs.”
The following screenshot is from Sodexo’s brochure about its Simple Servings Program:
19 Tips to Finding a Celiac-Friendly Campus
For parents of soon-to-be college students, helping your child navigate the muddy waters of campus living will require extra effort, research, and guidance.
I spoke with several students and parents about their unique challenges and what they advise incoming freshmen to consider when choosing a school and navigating the realities of on-campus dining.
Here’s what they had to say:
(1) Start With Online Research
The Internet offers a wealth of information for students and parents looking for safe gluten-free options on college campuses.
A good place to check is a university’s website. Many colleges and universities will post their allergen protocols and offer a list of dining contacts. This is an excellent place to start gathering initial information.
Another great resource is called Gluten-Free Friends. This resource was created by Sheryl Harpel, a mom of two celiac kids, and it offers an organized list of surveys completed by college students dishing on the realities of gluten-free dining on their college campus.
Gluten-Free Friends also keeps tabs on universities making headlines for their allergen-friendly – or lack of allergen-friendly – protocols.
You can also research which universities have been certified for their commitment to serving safe gluten-free food on campus. Campus certification programs include the following:
(2) Consult the FARE Website
FARE stands for Food Allergy Research & Education, and the organization advocates for the needs of people with food allergies.
FARE maintains a database of colleges that offers some insight into a school’s dining accommodations, noting if a school maintains an “allergy-friendly station,” trains its staff, offers transparent ingredient information, etc.
FARE also hosts an award program recognizing the top campuses for food allergies.
In 2022, Southern Methodist University won the award, and Duke University received an “Honorable Mention.” Auburn University won the “Community Choice” award.
The FARE website doesn’t list all the award winners over the years, but you can look at the organization’s archives to see if a university in a student’s consideration set has made the list.
(3) Contact the Dining Staff and Dietician
It’s essential that parents and students contact the university’s dining services general manager and registered dietician to inquire about food allergy accommodations.
Additionally, Sam recommends meeting directly with the chef before committing to any school.
“If I had known what the chef and staff were like before, I probably would not have come to the school. The chef’s demeanor is indicative of the quality of his food,” he said.
Johanna Ladis’ daughter, Sadie, will be a freshman at San Diego State next month. She said that when they were close to deciding, they set up a call with on-campus dining and spoke with the chef, who helped them become comfortable with the campus’s food options.
(4) Register with the Student Disability Center
Johanna also recommends registering your child with their school’s Student Disability Center in case they require special accommodations down the road.
She said this process involved sending the school a doctor’s note which disclosed her daughter’s official diagnosis.
“It was a lot of steps, and I’m sure every school does it differently. I would not have known to do this, and she might not ever need their services, but it’s good to have in place,” says Johanna.
(5) Visit and Experience Campus Dining
Parents and students should physically visit and eat in the dining halls of the schools being considered by their children.
How are allergen protocols handled? Was the staff knowledgeable? Did the process go as the chef or dining services manager said it would?
(6) Speak With Current Students
Angela also recommends speaking with current students with food allergies about their experiences.
“While it is nice to speak with nutrition services, admissions teams, and food prep staff, you will never gain the whole picture because each has a self-interest in looking good,” she says.
(7) Join an Online Support Group
Several Facebook groups exist for parents of rising and current college kids with celiac disease and gluten disorders. One such group is Gluten-Free College 101.
Members can search the group for comments about specific colleges and universities and pose questions to its nearly 3,000 members.
(8) Choose Housing Wisely
Angela recommends looking for housing where students can store and/or prepare their food, as some dormitories have common-use kitchenettes.
If your child has access to a shared kitchenette, send your child with cooking supplies so they don’t have to rely on the contaminated ones provided.
Kitchen tools to consider putting in your child’s dorm room (if allowed) include the following:
- Mini-fridge with freezer
- Toaster oven
- Pot, pan, and spatula
- Blender (for making protein shakes)
- Dishes, bowls, and silverware
- Dishwashing liquid, sponge, and hand towel
Don’t forget cooking oils, salt and pepper, and spices.
Also, consider the proximity of the dormitory to the university’s gluten-free dining accommodations. Your student may want to consider staying closer to the dining facilities that they can eat in.
(9) Find an Understanding Roommate
Many universities allow students to choose a roommate. If so, your child can mention that she’s gluten-free in her profile to attract potential gluten-free roommates.
Johanna says that her daughter found a potential roommate who is also gluten-free and is hoping they’ll be matched. A gluten-free roommate can be particularly helpful when sharing a fridge and microwave.
(10) Utilize Amazon and Thrive Market
If the local grocery stores don’t have gluten-free options, Amazon can be a “lifesaver,” says Angela.
Thrive Market is another excellent online option for delivering gluten-free groceries to your student.
(11) Bring Supplements and Medications
Along the same lines, send your child with any medications, supplements, or tools that can help settle their stomach should they accidentally consume gluten. Heating pads, ginger ale, Tylenol, anti-diarrhea medicines, and probiotics may help.
(12) Consider Bringing a Car
While many universities recommend against first-year students bringing a car, students with special dietary needs may find having a car on campus necessary.
“I thought it was healthy not to have a car during my freshman year, but it also limited my ability to get meals and snacks when I needed them,” says Sam, who recommends students with celiac disease bring a car, even during freshman year.
(13) Get to Know the Local Area
For students with food allergies, choosing a school in a gluten-free friendly city, where restaurants have gluten-free options and grocery stores stock familiar brands of gluten-free foods, can help.
Regardless, Angela recommends visiting coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores in the surrounding city to identify options for your student around town.
Have conversations with restaurant managers to help your child identify safe menu items at popular restaurants and grocery stores with great gluten-free selections.
Also, look for a pizza place with good allergy protocols if you can find one.
“College students love to eat out and explore new eateries. If your student can confidently recommend a few places nearby, this will avoid [having them] feeling starved while everyone eats pizza,” adds Angela.
(14) Get to Know Local Medical Care Options
When visiting a school, take the time to help your child figure out where they should go if they need medical care, both on- and off-campus.
Also, check out the university’s mental health services, should your child need it. Eating a special diet can feel isolating and invoke feelings of anxiety and depression, so they may need someone to talk to.
(15) Advocate and Speak Up
Parents should coach their students to speak up and advocate for their needs as much as possible. Parents must treat their children as adults and coach them on handling tricky situations without getting involved initially.
However, there may come a point where a parent needs to step in and intervene.
When Angela’s son came home for Thanksgiving, he had large circles under his eyes and a “gaunt appearance.” Angela knew her son didn’t want to complain or be a problem student, so she decided it was time for her to step in.
“It was incredibly frustrating and disappointing to be let down in this way, especially when we were paying so much money for meal services,” she says.
While it’s tempting to give up and request a meal plan exception (if you can get one), having your child eat alone in their room can be an incredibly isolating experience, especially for first-year students. Much socializing happens over meals in the dining halls.
Parents and students should advocate for proper accommodations and not let colleges off the hook so quickly.
The Lesley and Rider cases set a precedent that schools should provide inclusive gluten-free dining accommodations, and schools across the U.S. must take note or risk being sued or shut down in violation of the ADA.
(16) Considerations For Off-Campus Living
If your child lives off-campus and struggles to find and/or prepare meals for himself, consider subscribing to a meal delivery service.
Keep in mind, however, that the entrees need to be refrigerated upon arrival and will stay fresh for only seven days.
Many of the meals are gluten-free but prepared in a shared kitchen. Do your research. (Balanced Bites and Metabolic Meals meals are made in a dedicated gluten-free kitchen. Please verify before ordering.)
(17) Care Packages Help
To help your child adjust to life away from home, send them care packages with their favorite non-perishable gluten-free snacks … and maybe a few baked goods from home, too.
(18) Encourage Connection
Celiac disease isolates, but your child doesn’t have to go at it alone. Encourage them to look for opportunities to connect with other celiac students on campus. If they can’t find an organization, suggest they can create one.
Going through this crazy college experience with other celiac and gluten-free friends will make the entire college experience more bearable and fun.
(19) Choose Your School Wisely
Finally, choosing a college wisely is essential, and campuses that offer celiac-friendly dining accommodations should top your list.
With safe, nourishing food accommodations, your child will be happier. They’ll focus less on finding food and more on academics and their social and emotional well-being.
The good news is that many schools have made headlines in recent years for their gluten-free and food allergy accommodations. Here are a few universities doing it right:
Arizona State University has six dining stations serving students with food allergies.
The University of Arizona was recognized by MenuTrinfo as having “Best Food Allergy Innovation for Universities.”
The University at Buffalo maintains a dedicated gluten-free area within its Simple Kitchen dining center, certified by Kitchens with Confidence.
George Mason University is in the news for adding an allergen-friendly retail concept on campus. It’s known as The Difference Baker.
Lehigh University, Moravian University, and Ohio University are spotlighted in this article about colleges becoming allergen-friendly.
Michigan State’s café, Thrive, is certified free from the top 8 major allergens plus gluten by Kitchens with Confidence.
Montclair State University is switching dining providers to one that offers gluten-free options.
North Dakota State University was recognized by MenuTrinfo as having “The Best Food Allergy Training for Universities.
Northwestern University, Clemson University, Cornell University, and Texas Tech University were featured in Living Allergic magazine for having allergen-friendly campuses.
Smith College in Northampton, MA, has a dedicated GF dining hall. (Thanks for the tip, Heidi!)
Syracuse University offers four dining halls with allergen options, all certified by Kitchens with Confidence.
Vanderbilt University was recognized as having the “Best Overall Food Allergy Program for Universities” by MenuTrinfo.
Western Michigan University is making headlines for its new student center, which features a dining hall with a gluten-free pantry and a chef that cooks gluten-free meals to order.
Food is Fuel
Finding a college or university that offers safe, gluten-free meal accommodations is undoubtedly a top concern for parents of kids with celiac disease and gluten-free students.
“When you feel safe about eating food, you can focus on the important social movements that happen around food, which are socializing and building upon friendships while being nourished so you can feel your best,” says Angela.
Don’t underestimate the vital role dining services play in your college search.
Students deserve nourishing and safe gluten-free meals. Schools can’t play dumb any longer, and the law is on the side of students.
As time marches on, schools can be certain that this next generation will have more special dietary needs than any generation before them. Colleges and universities better wake up if they want to attract the brightest and best students.