Student Explores Food Allergies On Campus

Fourth-year graphic design major Rachael Kubikowski suffers from Celiac’s disease, meaning she is gluten intolerant. When she started her thesis class for her graphic design bachelor’s of fine arts program with the theme of “Design for Good,”  she opted to use her skills to try and change the way campus dining handles feeding students with allergies.

Kubikowski said she hopes to draw attention to the often-overlooked issue of allergies on a college campus.

According to the student, although there are some options like loaves of gluten/wheat-free bread or pizza crusts available for those who ask for them, there is little to no comprehensive plan for students afflicted. Even the vegan options on campus, at times, have nuts or other allergens leaving them off limits, she said.

“One particular student told me how she can never eat vegan baked goods because they are often on the same tray with goods containing nuts.” said Kubikowski. “She has both a nut and milk allergy.”

Other options for these students include gluten/wheat- free pasta at Hawk Station, but otherwise Kubikowski said there is nothing on campus that is guaranteed to be allergen free.

Kubikowski believes that gaining knowledge regarding allergies is the first step to bettering the campus dining environment. She believes better information should be supplied to the employees of student eateries. She said that if the food staff had an informational pamphlet or video explaining the dangers of food allergies, allergic reactions could be avoided.

“For me, the main problem is a lack of information; the students who work at the food vendors, and even some of the regular staff, aren’t aware of how serious the issue of food allergies is.” Kubikowski said

Having an adverse reaction to something can be avoided so long as “we know what’s in it;” however, oftentimes the staff will have already thrown away the packaging with ingredients, or won’t really check what’s in an item believing that it’s not really a big deal, according to Kubikowski.

She said one of the major issues is that students who have allergies have to go to the school dietitian in order to know what is safe for them to eat and if they don’t arrange such a meeting, they are at risk.

Campus Dietitian Evelyn Gezo said that such meetings are essential for students with allergies as they “personalize” their dining experiences.

According to Gezo, the process can begin prior to enrollment. She often receives phone calls from or talks to parents of students with severe allergies, taking down numbers and e-mails to explain the accommodations that can be made for the individual student after moving on campus.

“At that point [students] are encouraged to make an appointment to see me regarding their nutritional needs and how to maneuver and select foods in Hasbrouck as well as the SUB and Hawk Station (formally Oscars) since not everyone fits into a standard diet and many have multiple intolerances,” said Gezo.

For Kubikowski, bettering the overall dining environment is of the utmost importance. She hopes to capture the attention of the higher-up officials. Eventually, Kubikowski said she would like to see place cards detailing the ingredients for each dish being served. She said this would cut back the number of students who could accidentally ingest something harmful.

Though there have been oversights in the past to students with allergies, Gezo said they have been remedied.

In the case of the “Circus Night” event held in Hasbrouk Dining Hall last semester, open bowls of peanuts in the shell were made available to the students. The event was held again this semester and packages of Cracker Jacks were substituted. However, this didn’t alleviate student concern.

“One student did bring it to our attention that students were eating them at the tables and she felt unsafe,” said Gezo. “She suggested that the packages be given to students on their way out. Management was made aware of the situation.”

Second-year theatre major Julia Fell, who has a nut allergy, has talked to dining services numerous times regarding the issue of cross-contamination in Hasbrouck.

“For people with allergies, cross-contamination, or any kind of contamination by particles or oils from the allergen are a serious threat,” said Fell. “Peanut shells and Cracker Jack crumbs are pretty much the last thing that I (or anyone else with my allergy) want to see anywhere near their eating surfaces.”

Fell said that it is important to get input from as many students with allergies as possible as her experiences have helped her to realize how risky it can be navigating campus dining as a student with allergies.

Kubikowsi will hold a meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at  7 p.m. in Student Union 407 for students interested in discussing allergies and ways to ensure a safe dining environment on campus.