My college search process centered around two factors: academics and dining. When the tour guides asked for questions at the conclusion of their tours, I always chimed in with a question regarding accommodations for food allergies and gluten-free options. The well-meaning tour guides never failed to provide a response noting that “*insert school here* is great at accommodating dietary restrictions! As long as you contact the dining manager you won’t have a problem.”
At the time, this answer satisfied me and my parents, and we left every campus thinking that dining would not pose any major issues. After one semester of college, I can tell you that gluten-free dining is not that simple and even the best schools in the country have their downfalls.
Many people do not consider the fact that these college tour guides are full-time students as well. They have classes, extracurriculars and social lives distinct from their role as tour guides. They do not spend their spare time researching the intricacies of student life that do not impact them. If they give a one sentence answer enthusiastically proclaiming that their college does a great job at accommodating any needs, they likely lack concrete knowledge of the matter at hand. In order to gain a clearer perspective of how the college will accommodate your gluten-free diet, tailor your questions to target the guide’s personal experiences.
After reflecting upon my college search process, here are the questions that I wish I had asked on my college visits.
Do you or any of your close friends have experience with dining with food allergies? If so, what do the accommodations look like and how effective are they?
If the tour guide has any anecdotal advice regarding navigating the dining halls, this question should shed some light on actual details of the services provided. If not, there are still meaningful questions to ask that might provide insight to the accommodations offered by the university.
Is there clear allergen labeling or a separate serving area for students with allergies?
If the tour guide does not have personal experience, he or she may still be able to provide some information regarding details of gluten-free dining. While they may not use the services themselves, they have probably observed whether there is an allergy-friendly area of the dining hall or labels indicating the common allergens present in foods.
Clear labeling is important because it allows for on-the-go students to quickly identify safe options when they do not have time to speak with a dining manager or look online. My school labels food as vegetarian and vegan but they do not consistently label allergens, which has caused problems for me in the past.
How receptive is the administration to student feedback regarding living and dining?
The answer to this question will allow for prospective students to gauge the administration’s flexibility regarding students’ needs. While my school does not yet label dishes that contain gluten or other allergens, they do listen to student feedback.
As a member of the Student Faculty Committee on Dining, I have the privilege of working with the head dining faculty to reform the dining experience and make it safer for students with food allergies. The administration is great about listening to student feedback and they are actively working on improving the dining experience for those with dietary restrictions. So, even if the school does not currently have accommodations in place, this question should indicate the likelihood that the school is willing to accommodate your needs.
I focused my college search on small to medium-size private schools, so my experience with college tours may differ from someone looking at large state schools or small liberal arts colleges. Regardless, these questions should give prospective students a better perspective on how their life may look on a particular college campus.
Originally from Salado, Texas, Kayla Manning is a first-year student at Harvard. Following her diagnosis with celiac disease in 2013, she maintained a strict gluten-free diet with relative ease through her junior high and high school years. However, college life posed unfamiliar challenges and she struggled to adjust to her new dining situation. She hopes that sharing her experiences can help others with their transition to gluten-free dining in college.