“I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege, but I didn’t know what it was like to be this hungry,” a First-year student with severe gluten and dairy intolerances said at a meeting between students with medically restricted diets and College administration on Nov. 11.
Victoria Cottrell ’22 organized the meeting. It “arose out of a long chain of emails I had been sending to ADR, Housing, and [Dean of Students Sheilah] Horton trying to get answers about my prospects for food on campus in the spring, given the fact that I chose to leave one week into the semester partly because I was so sick,” Cottrell said. Dean Horton proposed a meeting after being CC’ed on Cottrell’s emails with the various departments, and Cottrell invited a group of students with allergies and celiac disease.
Students with severe allergies and celiac disease have long struggled to eat on the Wellesley campus, where nearly every student is required to be on the meal plan. Even when there are options available for these students, they are labeled gluten-sensitive or nut-sensitive rather than -free. (Allergen-sensitive means that a dish is not made with that ingredient, but it does not guarantee the absence of cross-contamination.) Self-serve stations, including salad and sandwich bars during non-COVID times, are off-limits for many students because of the risk of cross-contamination: others may use the same serving utensil for an allergen and then for a non-allergen, which poses risks for their peers with allergies. Tower has a Clarity station, which serves a meat and vegetarian dish made without the top eight allergens and wheat. But those two options per lunch and dinner are “severely lacking,” said a senior with celiac disease.
Students with food restrictions must often ask for clarification on a food’s ingredients. Earlier this semester, a First-year student asked a dining hall employee whether an item contained gluten, and the employee responded by asking what gluten was, she told the News.
“That casts a lot of doubt on whether or not I want to eat that,” she said. “I don’t like holding up the line to ask.”
Food labels are often incorrect. Students shared instances of gluten-containing ingredients being marked gluten-sensitive, or allergens being left off the labels altogether.
Even when dining exclusively in the Bates Gluten Sensitive Room, Cora Barrett ’23 reported having gotten sick from gluten twice last academic year. In one instance, Wellesley Fresh purchased vegetarian sausages from a different supplier than they had previously used and neglected to check the new label, explained Barrett. The other time she became ill, Barrett ate sausages which contained cracked wheat. She reported this to the manager, the director of operations and the nutritionist, and was told that there was only a “minimal amount” of cracked wheat. Even undetectable amounts of gluten can sicken someone with celiac.
Existing issues have been compounded by Wellesley’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students were initially forbidden from using dorm kitchens this semester due to concerns about high-touch surfaces, according to a college-wide email from Dean Horton on Aug. 17. Those who relied on cooking for themselves were left with a sink and a microwave. While dorm kitchens opened near the end of the semester for two hours a week of recreational cooking, this makes it look like “stress baking” is being prioritized over the food security of those with dietary restrictions, said a senior with celiac. On top of that, the Gluten Sensitive Room in Bates was closed for term one and a month of term two.
Some students have expressed a desire to get off the mandatory meal plan and take charge of their own meals, but others expect the meal plan to provide for their needs.
“I don’t have time to cook for myself,” said Cottrell. To feed students with restricted diets, she proposed making one of the dining halls allergen- and gluten-free, not just allergen- or gluten-sensitive. Other institutions have done this. Vanderbilt University has a dining hall certified free of the top eight allergens; Cornell University has a certified gluten-free dining hall.
An anonymous senior with celiac agreed: “I now task admin with taking responsibility for the health and safety of their students. The first step to doing this is making a commitment to providing meals that are SAFE for everyone, and thereby ensuring that Clarity meals are guaranteed allergen-free. Anything less shows a complacency for the current system, which actively hurts students.”
Cottrell also suggested having a member of the Wellesley College administration or staff member from the Office of Accessibility and Disability Resources in charge of holding Wellesley Fresh accountable.
“Wellesley Fresh has broken so many of its promises and generally has a nonchalant attitude toward these problems,” said Cottrell. “I was told on two separate occasions by Wellesley Fresh that a Clarity station would be in every dining hall [this year] and that there would be lots of gluten-free options in Tower, like cereal, sandwiches, etc. That was a lie.”
In the Nov. 11 meeting, administration promised to work with Jim Wice of the ADR to get kitchen access for students who need it and take these concerns to Vice President Piper Orton, who oversees AVI.
Two days later, Dean Horton followed up via email with students who attended the meeting. ADR would work to grant kitchen access to those who need it, she wrote, and the Gluten Sensitive Room would reopen in Bates with frozen and made-to-order meals at the end of the week of Nov. 16. She also wrote that Clarity meals would continue to be available at Lulu and Bates, the two dining halls without a Clarity station. Before then, Lulu had not been consistently providing an allergen-free meal, and the option at Bates was pasta.
A Clarity option was added to the lunch and dinner menus at Lulu beginning Dec. 6 after a student approached staff about their failure to consistently provide an allergen-free option up until then. Through the end of the term, Bates’s Clarity option continued to be pasta for both lunch and dinner.
The Bates Gluten Sensitive Room did reopen — later than promised, on Nov. 27 — with snack items like hummus, yogurt, and bagels, along with frozen microwavable meals. There was no menu of fresh meals from which to choose, as the email had said there would be.
Eleanor Nash ’21, who is gluten-intolerant, took extra frozen meals to have as a back-up. “If there’s nothing in the dining hall for me to eat, then I can eat it,” she said.
But students who are more sensitive to gluten are angry that Wellesley seems to be substituting frozen meals for the meal plan. When Cottrell found out that the Gluten Sensitive Room was only offering TV dinners, she had her mother email administrators, since she thought a parent’s concerns would be taken more seriously, and her mother has not received a response. “I’m just left here hanging wondering whether Wellesley Fresh is actually trying to pull off giving me (and other students who solely eat out of the GS Room) only frozen meals,” said Cottrell.
The last of the College’s promises did come to fruition, at least for one student. A senior with celiac got kitchen access after having her doctor contact ADR and Dean Horton. “It for sure helped,” she said, “but the process should not have taken two and a half, almost three months, as I was hungry and malnourished during that time period.”