Students who suffer from food allergies may have found their newest, and most surprising ally in the form of the United States Justice Department. On December 20th of last year, the Department announced an agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., ensuring that students with food allergies could fully and equally enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In the wake of this decision, schools and colleges all over the country are discussing and re-considering their food distribution processes, and Swarthmore is no exception. Noah Weinthal ’15, who is highly allergic to peanuts and peanut products, has been spearheading reform in Sharples, as well as in the Kohlberg and Science center cafes. Weinthal came across posters in Sharples, noting that that cafeteria used various allergens in their kitchens and that cross contamination could occur. During a meal at Sharples, finding a supposedly washed mug covered with a streak of peanut butter was, for him, the final straw.
“I get that nothing is ever 100 percent safe,” said Weinthal. “But in the past Sharples has mislabeled ingredients in certain foods like pad Thai, which does contain peanuts. There’s sesame oil in a lot of foods too and some people are allergic to that. Whole wheat pasta has been labeled as gluten free, but anyone with Celiac disease knows there’s a major distinction between the two.”
Celiac disease is a digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten. People with celiac disease who consume food containing gluten experience an immune reaction in their small intestines, causing damage to the inner surface of the small intestine. “Some people think having allergies simply means I can’t eat Reese’s,” said Weinthal. “But what they sometimes forget is that I could actually die.”
Overall, change is occurring gradually, and much positive work to mitigate issues for students with food allergies has already taken place. Sets of dishes, utensils and cups are now specially washed twice for the sole use of allergic students. Additionally, a special condiment bar is available, and packaged, nut free desserts like Oreos are accessible for those who desire them. Essie Mae’s Café in Tarble has begun carefully labeling their products, and the other cafes are in the process of following suit, according to Weinthal.
While change has been positive on campus, the Lesley University decision certainly comes with its share of drawbacks and is not without controversy. Though many consider the Lesley decision a resounding victory for those with allergies, skepticism remains about the ruling. In resolving the case with its various affected parties, the university agreed to comply with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states that students with severe food allergies are actually disabled. Some believe this notion to be degrading, offensive and incorrect, but Weinthal does not view the wording of the ruling negatively.
“My allergy means I can’t be around certain people, I can’t fly on certain airlines and can’t even travel to certain countries. It really is a disability, and what’s important about the Lesley ruling is that it strengthens the conversation about equal access. Why shouldn’t I have same number of options as anybody who doesn’t suffer from peanut allergies?”
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, wrote an article for FoxNews.com, arguing that it’s simply wasteful for a branch like the Justice Department to expend capital investigating food preparation in Lesley University and at other schools. Notably, he pointed out that “the dispute was whether the university had enough gluten-and allergy-free ‘hot and cold’ options in each of its cafeterias where the students eat on any given day.”
Weinthal, however, vehemently disagrees, and believes, in fact, that varied food options is the key issue. “Students with allergies ought to have the same opportunities as those who do not have them. I think the common experience is that everyone feels like they don’t have choices, that we can’t experience the same things as our peers.”
Linda McDougall, the head of dining services, recognizes the need for continued vigilance and safety policies, but says there are in fact a variety of options in terms of food choices for students with allergies. “We custom tailor meals for certain students everyday, and we store certain items in a separate fridge to avoid any problems,” she said.
Raisa Reyes ’15, another student with allergies, agrees with this sentiment, explaining that for her the school has been very accommodating and that “there are enough safe food choices for people with peanut allergies.”
McDougall also explained that the cafeteria would no longer be making dishes that used peanut butter or peanut products in any way. “No menu items have peanuts now,” she said. “We may however, start using peanut butter substitutes like ‘Wow,’ in the future to accommodate everyone.” Real peanut butter will still be served and situated at a separate table near the condiment bar.
Issues concerning food allergies and food access on campus span beyond simply eating, though, explained Leslie Hempling, the head of disability services at the college. She said that a major concern among many administrative members involved in this topic was the breakdown in initial communication between students and administration.
“Students approach their allergies in terms of administration differently. We’re going to try and make the process much more explicit from now on,” she said.
Beth Kotarski, head of the Worth Health Center, agreed that there needed to be more dialogue between incoming freshmen and administration in order to provide an optimal and safe dining environment. “A lot of students don’t understand how important their initial health screening is,” she said.
“Even in the most severe cases of allergies, pediatricians often clear students for college food. Also, a lot of students feel they want their privacy and don’t want to be labeled or be different, but it can hurt them in the end,” she said. Hempling said that a form would be sent out for the incoming freshmen class asking them to pay close attention to their personal allergy issues, but still giving them the choice as to whether or not to disclose the information.
In general, Weinthal views the broad administrative changes not only as a victory for students with allergies, but as a means for pursuing dialogue that can help students with all forms of disabilities in different facets of college life. He hopes that his work will inspire others to seek change, and create a better, more inclusive, and easily accessible college environment. He also however, recognizes that more work needs to be done, by students and administration.
Reyes agrees with this, and suggested certain changes that could help mitigate food issues for students with allergies, particularly in Sharples.
“They don’t list the specific type of nuts they put in ice cream,” she said. “I’m only allergic to peanuts so I can eat ice cream that contains other kinds of nuts. Additionally there should be one ice cream scooper for nut ice creams and one for nut free ice creams. Finally, there should be an explicit rule for contaminating condiments with peanuts or nut products. If you have a piece of bread with peanut butter, you shouldn’t use the jam knife to spread jam on top of the peanut butter-covered bread.”
Hempling echoed Weinthal’s beliefs, stressing the importance of all the surrounding issues. “Hopefully this will permit students who have not disclosed to open up,” she said. “Hopefully they will choose to identify [as students with food allergies] so they can get the kinds of choices that they want through the dining services.”