Welcome to the Free Zone Jungle

Narples. The expensive piece of brick that replaced the old ski-lodge-looking stone we called Sharples. It is the poster child of the power that donors have on Swarthmore. The Swarthmore ship depends on its sea of money to keep floating and expanding its horizons. The college can’t stop flexing about how they cultivated the fruit of their investment. Email after email advertising the greatness of Narples flooded our inboxes for quite some time. This massive octopus has multiple tentacles, but the main one shoves food into our mouths. I must now introduce another character into this story …

Gluten. My intestinal nightmare. This protein shows up everywhere I want to eat with the face of Jack Nicholson from “The Shining,” ready to hammer down my guts. All jokes aside, being gluten intolerant is not all fun and puns. My gluten-free diet is not a choice. It is instrumental for my well being and basic functioning.

Naturally, when Narples opened, I wanted to know what my stomach’s future would be. Anthony Coschignano, the project lead and co-chair of the executive core team for the new dining hall project, repeated the phrase, “we will offer an array of fresh and local dining options and work closely with any students who have dietary restrictions,” in two emails sent to the college community dated Oct. 7 and 14. Neither I, nor the three other gluten-free students who I consulted for this article, were notified by anybody prior to Narples’ grand debut. What were we going to do?

When the gates of Narples opened, angelic chants of relief rang in my ears. The Free Zone was right there at the entrance. Back in the old days, the Free Zone was a little Harry Potter-style hidden secret room with exclusively gluten-free food. This time, it is free of all top nine allergens. The open design was quite a stark contrast from that room without ventilation, where the air was as still as a dead Sharples mouse. In an email to The Phoenix, Swarthmore Dining’s Associate Residential Manager, Augustine Ruhri, explained the reasoning behind this new setup: “This was designed to be a station that is inclusive for all, and the current layout has it as the second station you see when you walk in. However, when we open phase 2 [when renovated Sharples opens] it will seem a bit further in as you walk in. We thought it was important to make it a part of the program and not to be separate and hidden away, as we wanted those with allergies to feel part of the program and to not have a separate closet room as we had in the past.” A fellow gluten-free sophomore, who decided not to give their name, agreed that the open layout was an improvement from the old traffic-jammed room. Another non-glutenous Swattie, Mary Grace Capossela ’25, agreed and added: “It feels less ostracizing. On the other [hand], it definitely opens up the possibility of cross-contamination. The staff has been good at keeping allergens out, but there’s always a risk.” 

The issue of cross-contamination is quite delicate. Not only are gluten molecules ninjas that can stay suspended in the air and scatter all over the place, but they can also stick to surfaces. The website for the organization Beyond Celiac explains that since gluten is a protein and not a living organism, you can’t just kill it, making it even harder to get rid of. This makes cross-contamination sneaky, silent and many times invisible to our eyes. A single tiny gluten molecule can trigger a bad reaction depending on the severity of the person’s intolerance, allergy, or coeliac disease. Prolonged consumption of gluten can have serious consequences for those of us with an immune reaction. Some of these consequences include symptoms such as intestinal discomfort, developing diseases like bowel cancer, or even depression. Ruhri explained that the measures being taken to prevent this included contacting manufacturers to see if their products are in a shared facility or contain allergens, handwashing and glove wearing, cleaning surfaces, separating equipment and utensils, and the constant availability of a server. Another important measure that she mentioned was educating customers on using clean plates when coming to the Free Zone. The measures taken are the right ones, but the open design can lead to slip-ups. I have personally seen someone pouring syrup from the allergen-free counter on very glutenous French toast. As my eyes witnessed how that spoon grazed the gluten and went back into the container, I could hear my neurons simultaneously imploding and exploding. The previous isolation of the station offered a sense of security that this kind of issue would not happen.

Labeling is key for preventing cross-contamination and assuring that a food is safe for us to consume. When asked what the criteria for labeling items was, specifically those with a GF marker, Ruhri replied that there had to be communication with the manufacturers and culinary team and, specifically for gluten-free products, the area had to be clean and used with separate utensils. Labeling has definitely improved since the early days of Narples. Initially, there were incidents where items were mislabeled. For example, dressings in the salad bar have been labeled with what allergens they contain. I finally understood why I was getting those stomach pains after pouring the sesame sauce on my chicken. Rose Palmieri ’24 raised an important issue: “Many foods are not labeled as containing wheat but are also not labeled gluten-free, so it’s really hard to tell what’s actually safe outside the Free Zone.” For example, french fries may not contain gluten themselves but they may be fried in oil that has fried something with gluten, which ends up cross-contaminating said food. Labeling is still a work in progress.

Another issue that has risen is variety. In the old days, there would be a list with all the options for the meal time and a list of any other additional allergens that each food may have. Since the Free Zone does not include any of the nine top allergens, this shrinks our possibilities for different kinds of food. Some might argue that the new Free Zone might have taken the “kill two birds with one stone” motto a bit too far. For example, ever since Narples opened, gluten-free mac & cheese or pizza have not been offered. For those who are vegetarian or vegan, there are no guaranteed gluten-free protein options, since those usually contain soy. On the other hand, the anonymous gluten-intolerant interviewee stated that they need to eat meat for health reasons, but meat options and variety are also lacking in the Free Zone. It is important to note that gluten-free students have been in ongoing communication with Swarthmore Dining and there have been improvements on variety such as adding a toaster for gluten-free bread, a waffle maker, new dessert options in the fridges under the counter, and moving the gluten-free bread and packaged treats away from the very glutenous pizza oven. 

To wrap up, gluten-free students are no longer taking the 9 ¾ platform at King’s Cross. However, that comes with our food being exposed to the glutenous world. Communication with and help from Swarthmore Dining has been key to improving the situation with the new Free Zone. After raising concerns about cross-contamination and variety, they have actively listened to us and have advocated for us in many situations. In her statement to The Phoenix, Ruhri herself encouraged anyone with concerns to reach out to Swarthmore Dining. All three students I consulted, and myself included, are very thankful for this. However, it is important to note that there needs to be more awareness as to how to protect our fellow students from such a dangerous allergen in our community as a whole. 

Gluten-eating Swatties, welcome to the Free Zone jungle.

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