Starving on Dining Dollars: Eating on Campus with Food Sensitivity


Photo of UC San Diego Housing, Dining, and Hospitality dining hall food allergen icons.
Arlene Banuelos / The Triton

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Last school year, before Warren College’s dining hall Canyon Vista went under construction, my roommates and I would go there for dinner almost every night. There would be something different served in the World’s Fare dinner area each night, whether it was noodle dishes or mashed potatoes or curry—and five days out of seven, I would reluctantly turn yet again to order the same items at the Burger Lounge because the dinner meals nearly always contained an ingredient I could not eat. As a student with food sensitivities, it’s often a struggle for me to find one or two safe meals to eat at any HDH location, and I know that other students with food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances feel the same.

There is simply not a lot of consideration for students with special dietary needs at HDH locations. In lieu of offering a variety of choices for all needs, HDH suggests that students with food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerances speak with a dietician, but attempts to get in touch with this person or to get more information about food options can be frustratingly difficult. Case in point, I reached out via email to the HDH dietician at the beginning of this year’s Fall quarter to inquire about their program, and I never received a reply from them—and neither did a friend of mine who emailed them regarding his food sensitivities. This is a major institutional problem, since the only person whom students with allergies and dietary restrictions can reach out to in order to obtain food that they can safely eat is not responsive.

Even if a student does manage to get in touch with a dietician, HDH still requires that students whose allergies or sensitivities are medically documented register with the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) before they are able to secure dietary accommodations. However, registering with the OSD can be a stigmatizing process, and some students might instead find themselves eating very limited, unhealthy diets from the tiny selection of options in the markets or whatever they can purchase from off-campus stores—provided that students have access to a car, have a spare weekend day to devote to the UC San Diego grocery shuttle, or are willing to spend an exorbitant amount of time dealing with the chronically delayed bus in order to make it off UCSD’s isolated campus. This time required to go off-campus in search of food could be time that students detract from studying or working, and would be completely unnecessary if HDH could simply provide an abundance of food options suiting different dietary needs; for example, by including more variety in dining hall meals or by including a wider selection of market foods that leave out a broader range of allergenic ingredients.

Avoiding this time hassle is supposedly why HDH has the on-campus markets; yet if students with dietary sensitivities choose to utilize HDH markets as a food source, they are severely limited by the options provided at these locations. Very few products at the markets are gluten-free, and most of the gluten-free items come in a finite variety of frozen meals with dubious health consequences. At Goody’s Market, most of the gluten-free meals are frozen or boxed mac and cheese, only one of which comes without dairy. While some of these options lack certain allergenic ingredients like gluten and dairy, the variety is limited to only one or two types of mac and cheese, depending on the market’s availability at any given time—and mac and cheese isn’t the most healthy meal to begin with, which limits the options for students with gluten intolerances both in terms of variety and nutrition.

To make matters worse, for food allergies that aren’t severe, HDH suggests students use their menus with lists of ingredients to avoid problematic foods. While these lists of ingredients make it clear which ingredients are being used, this doesn’t change the fact that there are some ingredients which are used in nearly every dish at HDH dining halls. For example, garlic, something I am sensitive to, is used so often at HDH dining halls that if I were to eat at the Warren food trucks at the time I am outlining this piece, I would have all of two safe food options: plain basmati rice and wheat naan. Not to mention, gluten is included in most dishes at dining halls, and HDH does not offer readily accessible gluten-free substitutes. The entire Grill at Pines contains gluten, and none of these options are readily offered with gluten-free substitutes, even though the majority of these foods could easily be offered with gluten-free breads or ingredients. Corn, which some students are allergic to, is included so often in many HDH meals that students with this allergy often cannot eat at a dining hall for the whole day that those meals are being served. And at Goody’s Place, the entire Breakfast menu contains dairy except for one option, leaving an extremely narrow morning meal selection for students with intolerances to dairy products.

HDH needs to make a change towards widespread and accessible accommodations for dietary restrictions—and not by shunting students to the help of the obscure dietician or the intervention of the OSD, but by offering meals that a wider group of students can safely eat. Students with dietary restrictions shouldn’t be forced to purchase a dining plan for food that they can’t eat, and any student who lives on campus, even if they don’t have food allergies, shouldn’t have to eat the same unhealthy meals day after day. The solution to HDH’s diminished food variety comes not from making students cope with the issue of extremely limited dining hall food, but for HDH to incorporate a more varied array of ingredients in their meals—so that all students will have easy access to nutritious food, and will no longer have to walk into a dining hall and wonder if they have to order that one safe meal yet again, or leave campus on a quest to find food they can safely eat.

Montanna Harling is a Contributing Writer for The Triton.