How to survive college with celiac disease

Celiacs at College

    Step 1 - Should I go to the college that promises to feed me?

 No. For two reasons. One - Academics and career

aspirations may be the most important factors that will shape your life in the future. Two - what the college promises in accomodating your dietary needs may be different from what you end up getting. Make your decision on non-dietary factors; you can figure out the eating part with a little help and advance planning.

    Step 2 - Campus dining: who to talk with?

In everything I've read about colleges accomodating food allergies and restrictions, they always say to contact the nutritionist and/or the Supervisor of Food Services. True enough, the colleges we visited all were responsive to our list of questions and tried to be helpful. My college's nutrionist answered my extensive list of questions and even had me outline exactly what I wanted to eat breakfast, lunch & dinner. This surpassed my expectations and certainly played a part in my eventual decision on college choice. But did it come to pass? Well, no. As we got closer to the start of school I wasn't able to reach my nutrionist anymore via phone or email and had an uneasy feeling that things were not so well prepared as I was led to believe. My parents shared my concern and we decided to recontact the college's dining services at the floor level. Which brings me to...

Recommendation #1 -

Contact the head chef of the college you're looking to attend. They will tell you straight if they have some kind of system set up for celiacs and other restrictive diets. And, if they don't already have a system in place, what they can realistically do for you. Talk to them for accomodations in the kitchen (ie. dedicated toaster which I had) and any questions about the food and ingredients in the dining hall. Food in the dining hall is on a rotation so the same dish will be coming along many times during the year but it's always good to ask from time to time for reassurances about ingredients as they may change. The head chef will also be able to show you around the kitchen, introduce you to his assistant chefs and share some useful information. Like if the meals have ingredient cards which specify common allergies. My school had them and they were a lifesaver.

I should mention here that I've read some other Internet accounts where some college staff have gone far beyond normal expectations. Read here about Jennifer's experience

What we really need is for more experiences to be collected, analyzed and made available to incoming freshman, especially in light of the expanding celiac community. If you have an experience, please share with us under this site's Message Board.

    Step 3 - Register Your 504 at the Medical    Center

This is basically a plan that outlines what the college must be able to provide to a student with a documented medical condition. It starts with a letter from your doctor confirming your celiac diagnosis. As you may know, there is a growing community of non celiacs opting to go GF - they would generally not get a 504 accomodation because their condition is not chronic. The 504 plan covers, as Jennifer's experience pointed out, "the storage, access and preparation of gluten free foods and meals". My own experience is that the 504 plan didn't appear to add any special accomodations for me but I suspect that, if I had developed issues with not eating because of lack of GF food, the plan likely would have forced dining services to institute some changes.

    Step 4 - Advocate for yourself!

Best case scenario: The cooks in the dining hall generally are willing to cook special meals for you when nothing is available gluten-free. This was available for me when I took a summer program at Fordham University so it does happen. You need to ask so they understand that, without an accomodation from them, you may not be able to eat.


My continuing experience at college: The chefs are always busy in the kitchens (students man the food stations) and sometimes you feel like you're intruding. It happens. If this is the case for you, like it was for me, you may prefer working out a plan to lessen your dependence on the cafeteria by integrating foods brought from home and stored in your dorm. If you're lucky, like I was, you're allowed a refrigerator, freezer & microwave combination in your room. Our dorm floors also had a larger refrigerator and oven for student use (need to be careful here to avoid cross contamination) which was great for frozen GF pizzas from home.