Marin Rehfield ’22
In the fall of my junior year of high school, I started to feel inexplicably sick and was anemic all the time with no idea why. My doctor ordered blood work, which revealed that I had a 99% chance of having celiac disease. I was wary of the major lifestyle changes that celiac disease would require, so I held out high hopes it was a misdiagnosis until I got a biopsy of my small intestine, confirming I definitely had the disease.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation website, celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune disorder where the body attacks itself—specifically the small intestine and the villi within—in response to the ingestion of gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye.
The villi are essential to absorbing nutrients, so damaged villi from gluten ingestion cannot properly absorb nutrients. This leads to malnourishment, anemia, and can even create serious long-term conditions, such as gastrointestinal cancers and early-onset osteoporosis.
A celiac disease diagnosis requires cutting out any foods containing gluten from one’s diet, which includes traditional bread, pasta, pizza, beer, baked goods, fried foods, some salad dressings, and more. One in 100 people have celiac disease. Other individuals may have to go gluten free for health reasons other than celiac disease.
Eating a gluten-free diet can be difficult, so during the college decision process, I had to consider the amount of resources available for students with dietary restrictions.
Of the schools I was trying to decide from, both the University of Virginia (UVA) and William and Mary (W&M) had large dining hall sections that were entirely gluten and allergen free and served hot gluten-free foods daily.
I chose Davidson even though I found the gluten-free options difficult to manage while visiting and eating in Commons. Now as a student, I continue to find gluten-free options difficult to access. Davidson should look to peer institutions and provide more support and options to students with celiac disease and gluten allergies.
The Davidson website, under the “Dining Services” and “Food Allergies” tabs, does not offer much clarity for those who are gluten-free. It says there is a gluten-free area in the kitchen that has gluten-free foods and a dedicated gluten-free toaster (meaning a toaster that is not cross-contaminated from gluten in normal bread).
While there is a gluten-free toaster, the only gluten-free food located in this section is a loaf of gluten-free bread, a few pre-packaged bagels, and a small Tupperware box of gluten-free cookies and brownies. It is a start, but not enough to constitute an actual meal.
On the website it asks students to not ask the servers of the meal what ingredients are in a dish, as they will be listed on a clipboard near where the food is served.
The “express” and “du jour” lines are the only lines that regularly have clipboards with ingredients present. Usually the ingredient lists are complete, but they are occasionally incomplete.
The salad bar, grill, dessert, sandwich, and pizza sections do not have ingredient lists. I often must use my best guess as to what has gluten or what does not, even when the consequences of that guess can be bad for my health.
Even with the clipboards, Commons is not a gluten-free kitchen. French fries and sweet potato fries are naturally gluten free, but no fries at Commons or the Davis Café are truly gluten free, as they are cooked in a shared fryer with foods containing gluten.
Cross-contamination with foods containing gluten is possible even for foods that should be gluten free, and the website states that “We cannot guarantee any food will be completely free of allergens.”
Gluten-free students can email in advance to have a gluten-free meal made for lunch or dinner at Commons, but students are expected to email several hours in advance, which is often not feasible. This contrasts with UVA and W&M, where students can always expect a gluten-free meal to be available.
The gluten-free pizza in Commons also can take upwards of a half hour to make. Securing a gluten-free meal is often so much of a time commitment that it isn’t possible and taking a risk with unlabeled foods is easier.
The Davis Café has gluten-free tortillas and inherently gluten-free lettuce wraps available for salads and burgers; the Wildcat Den also has gluten-free bread.
However, neither the Davis Café nor the Wildcat Den have any public ingredient lists for students to check which allergens the food contains.
Without my eating house on campus, I would really struggle to find good gluten-free options.
My eating house knows of my allergy and usually has food I can eat eight meals a week.
However, the option of joining an eating house is not desirable or available for everyone.
When looking at the websites of other institutions of similar sizes to Davidson, I am jealous of the support that students with dietary restrictions receive.
Amherst College has a website that lets students enter allergens, and it then filters menu items for that particular diet. Williams College has an online order form that students can fill out every day for a gluten-free meal. Swarthmore College has a permanent gluten-free zone in their dining hall that has hot foods, staples, and desserts.
Recently, while in a conversation with a close friend from back home, they said they didn’t think they could thrive at a place like Davidson because they are never able to sacrifice their mental or physical health for academic success. Unfortunately, I could understand what they were saying.
After a busy day of classes, work, and activities, my diet and health are often overlooked, and I regularly consume food I know likely contains gluten as it is the easiest option. I wish Davidson would provide more support for students who are gluten-free to prevent this sacrifice from occurring.
Marin Rehfield ’22 is an English major from Staunton, Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com.