Unintentional Hunger Strike: How the Dining Hall Failed Me

Photo courtesy of SUNY New Paltz

When I first committed to New Paltz, I was so excited to enter this friendly little hippie town. When I toured as a high school junior and tried out all the restaurants, I was in awe of how many options there were for me. I was diagnosed with celiac disease — a gluten intolerance that essentially breaks down your stomach lining whenever you eat anything with gluten, wheat, barley, etc. — at the ripe age of two and a half years old. 

So seeing each restaurant have food for me and not just the usual salad option … let’s just say I was more than excited for the next four years. When the pandemic hit, I never lost that excitement as I didn’t think that aspect of my college experience would be affected. But here I am, two semesters in, still struggling to understand how I have to pay for the same meal plan as everyone else. 

Before I let my anger and irritation get the best of me and completely take over my writing, I want to start with an event that occurred one Saturday night at the dining hall, roughly a week before this paper was published. By now, my expectations are quite low, but when I went to the dessert area in Peregrine, to my surprise, taped onto the table was a single piece of white printer paper with big black letters reading: “Gluten-Free Cake.” 

I quite frankly couldn’t believe my eyes. After the excitement had begun to settle, I realized the piece of paper had a little bit of writing left on the bottom. In a much smaller print, it read, “May contain: milk, eggs, wheat, soybean.” So there was the catch. My beautiful piece of delicious gluten-free chocolate cake that was staring at me through the confines of its little clear window may contain wheat. Not so gluten-free, is it? 

My friends reassured me that the dining hall had only written it like that because it was probably made where things that aren’t gluten-free are also made, so they were taking every precaution necessary. But even if that’s true, to put it in the simplest terms possible — It wasn’t gluten-free. 

This wasn’t the first time an incident like this has occurred. Peregrine Dining Hall is no stranger to mislabeling or incorrectly advertising their food.

Last semester, a friend of mine excitedly brought over her green food tray, and sitting on top of the tray was a container holding a muffin. When she bit into her muffin her face immediately went from happy, to perplexed and then within seconds she spit it out; realizing that her banana muffin, in fact, did not contain any banana. Her banana muffin was actually an apple muffin — and guess who is severely allergic to apples?

After calming down and making sure she hadn’t swallowed any of the apples, we sat with her and began to draft an email to dining services explaining what had happened. Now — an entire semester — later we are still awaiting a response.

More recently, a vegan friend of mine went to Peregrine for dinner. When she arrived at the second station, there was a sign with the words “green bean casserole” on it. No ingredients, no allergy information; just those three words. 

Assuming that no warning meant she would be able to eat it, the man serving her food began scooping the casserole onto her tray. Halfway through, she began to notice something that looked suspiciously like meat and decided her best bet was to make sure she wasn’t about to eat anything she shouldn’t. When she asked, the man simply said that it wasn’t vegan and that the sign must’ve been printed wrong. Imagine if this had happened to someone with an allergy. 

Now, I’m aware that times are tough and that COVID has made a lot of things more difficult; But something like labeling your food correctly should really not be a lot to ask for. 

 Beyond mislabelling, the options for a person living with celiac on this campus are so limited. I once messaged the dining hall on Instagram in a fit of rage one night and inquired what their gluten-free options were, or if they had any options besides what they were advertising on their account. I briefly recalled during my tour of New Paltz being told that If I talked to a chef, they would always be able to cook something gluten-free up for me. But instead, they responded by saying that I could either eat at the Simple Servings Station or go to any other retail location. 

So okay, I had those options. The simple servings station consists of potatoes, meat and vegetables in various forms each night. While these are definitely gluten-free options — and I don’t want to sound like some picky complainer — I am not paying $2,400 for chicken, potatoes and broccoli. 

The other retail locations have more options. I’m not going to complain about the places in the SUB, because many of those faults lie within gluten-free food being bad in general and are not the fault of the school. The SUB actually has a plethora of options; I can have sushi, but only the rolls I already  know  are gluten-free from previous experiences. (Because one thing that GrubHub does not do is provide allergy warnings.) 

I can get pasta and pizza from Pomodoros, and even burgers without the bun from Nesters. That is, if the person making my meal checks the note on my order that reads “PLEASE DO NOT INCLUDE THE BUN I AM ALLERGIC!!! :)”  

Then there’s the Atrium Brew, where I and one of the nice women that work there have a mutual understanding that if I order a bagel, I’m really asking for gluten-free toast. Important to note that she does not put new gloves on to go from touching the regular bread to mine, but you know what … baby steps. 

You may be thinking, “Zoe, if you’re so annoyed and angry, why haven’t you tried to talk to someone about it?” Well, the simple answer is that I have. After participating in a focus group where a small group of students were asked questions regarding the dining options on campus, I was promised by the person in charge that If I sent him an email regarding my complaints, he would make sure it was put in the hands of the right person. 

Maybe it’s because I’m reaching my word limit or maybe it’s because I feel like this might just be the perfect way to sum up my thoughts and feelings on the subject, but I’m going to leave you with one more little story. 

On Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 at 10:48 a.m. I sent a pretty eloquently worded email — if I may say so myself — to the President of the Residence Hall Student Association; the same person who told me to contact them from the focus group. I received an email back promptly the same day at 3:19 p.m. stating that my email will be forwarded to the head of dining services. It is now March 4, 2021  — and I am still awaiting a response.

About Zoe Woolrich 13 Articles
Zoe Woolrich is a first-year media management major with a minor in film and video studies. This is her first semester with The Oracle. She concentrates on writing about politics and those who are underrepresented, as well as documenting concerts through both writing and photography. She enjoys collecting Squishmallows and making earrings for her Depop business.