My dietary restriction isn’t a trend. It’s the result of a real medial issue that impacts my daily life. And part of my life was choosing a university to attend for four years.

I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance as a freshman in high school. It was devastating at first: I couldn’t have cake at birthday parties, pizza with my friends or fresh baked bread from the store. After a couple months of this new lifestyle, however, I thought the worst was behind me. I was now comfortable asking questions at restaurants and my friends and family accommodated me at gatherings. 

Junior year marked the start of college tours. Like my peers, I was beyond excited to start a new chapter of my life away from home. Unlike my peers, I had a couple more factors going into my decision-making process: Does the dining hall offer gluten free options? Does it have gluten free bread? Are there restaurants in the area that I can eat at?

Stephanie Schoenster

These questions led my family to set up meetings with the dietician at every college we visited. Right after the campus tour and discussing opportunities for my selected major, we headed over to the dining hall to find out if I would be able to nourish myself while in college.

During my tours, I saw the whole gamut of allergy-friendly dining. At one end there was College A, where there was a complete allergen-free kitchen. While my classmates were getting their food, I would go into the kitchen and find specially cooked meals (waiting in a fridge) that I could microwave.

On the other end was College B, where I was advised to check out the salad bar. The rest of the dining hall featured the classic college carb-loaded meals, which were unfortunately also stuffed with gluten.

vegetable, meat, sauce, lasagna, tomato, cheese
Keni Lin

Other universities ended up somewhere in the middle as far as their allergy-friendly programs. Of course, the scale between dedicated kitchen and salad bar left a lot of wiggle room. In the end, my decision came down to College A and the University of Minnesota. College B was a leading college for my area of study, but I personally would have been extremely sad eating salad every day there. (Freshman -15, amiright?)

The University of Minnesota, where I ended up, offered what I found to be a nice compromise: at least one of the meal choices at a given mealtime would be naturally gluten free, and I always had access to gluten free bread and a dedicated gluten free toaster. (This is important for preventing cross-contamination, or when little gluten particles end up on gluten free food and give you a reaction). My university also gives the option of gluten free microwavable meals if nothing else works.

While I was lucky to at least have a couple options to choose from after I removed those who weren’t gluten friendly, it’s still a big deal that I had to make this elimination in the first place.

sweet, candy, nut, cereal, milk
Caitlin Shoemaker

Today it's estimated that 15 million Americans have food allergies. The CDC reported a 50 percent increase in food allergies in children between 1997 and 2011, meaning the proportion of the population with dietary restrictions will only grow. And while Celiac disease and related disorders aren’t technically allergies, dietary restrictions affect those with allergies and Celiac alike.

Furthermore, they both limit a major life activity and may qualify an individual for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. While there are many theories regarding the increase in food allergies, the fact remains that they are considered a public health concern and should be treated as such. 

So why isn’t more being done in the university setting to improve the food offerings for those with dietary restrictions? In the era of multi-million dollar athletic facilities, schools should think more about alternative student experiences, especially with something as basic as food. With an increase in awareness and a makeover of dining hall programs, perhaps future college kids won't have to worry about their dietary restriction when shopping for universities.