Students explore more diverse food options

More and more students have dietary restrictions, and they're looking for better options on their campuses

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There are some options around campus for people with dietary restrictions, like this gluten-free butternut squash soup from Howe Hall, Dalhousie (Photo: Marie Hanifen)

If Erica Sweett is studying on the King's or Dalhousie campuses, she's often doing so with an empty stomach. That's because the fifth-year student, like a lot of others on campus, follows a restricted diet - in her case, vegetarianism.

"They seem to not be very inventive with vegetarian food," Sweett says. "It's just very basic, carby, bad-for-you food."

And Sweett isn't the only one craving more options. According to a report released by the province of Nova Scotia in May 2011, the number of students requesting dietary accommodation at post-secondary institutions is on the rise, primarily due to allergies,illnesses, religious restrictions or ethical beliefs.

Students such as Rebecca Hoffer are trying to help. Hoffer is one of the founding members of the Loaded Ladle at Dalhousie. The group, created about two years ago, is a non-profit student co-operative that aims to provide free vegan food to Dalhousie students every Tuesday. The Loaded Ladle was founded on several principles, one of which was a mission to increase the diversity of food on campus. And while the meals are usually vegan, most of its members aren't.

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Co-founder of the Loaded Ladle, Rebecca Hoffer, with the group's kitchen coordinator Grant MacNeil (Photo: Marie Hanifen)

Examples of dietary restrictions:

  • Allergies: occur when the body's immune system perceives a food protein as a harmful invader. Even a minuscule amount can cause a reaction, which can be life-threatening in some cases.
  • Intolerances: require a larger amount of food to trigger a reaction. Generally, they are caused when the gastrointestinal system cannot digest or absorb a certain type of food.
  • Celiac Disease: is a disease of the digestive system that is triggered whenever gluten is eaten. The only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet.
  • Kosher: is consumed by members of the Jewish faith, and meets Jewish dietary laws. 
  • Halal: food is eaten by members of the Muslim faith, and has been processed according to Islamic law. 
  • Vegetarian: is a diet that does not include any meat, including poultry or fish.
  • Vegan: is a more restrictive diet that does not include any animal products, including dairy products, eggs or honey.

 

"It's just to make sure that anyone can come eat," Hoffer says.

That sense of inclusion goes beyond vegans and vegetarians too. The Loaded Ladle also provides gluten-free and nut-free options whenever it can. Hoffer says the group is also thinking about pairing up with other societies for theme nights, and occasionally diverting away from all-vegan foods in order to include other groups of students as well.

"We were thinking that it might be fun to have a barbeque some night," she says. "But have all local, free-range, halal meat."

The meals are made primarily from ingredients bought from local farmers - and they're popular. Each time the group shows up with their trays of food, they attract more than 200 students, Hoffer says. Sweett herself is a faithful customer.

"If they're serving, I'm eating there," she says. "It's refreshing to have some good warm food when you're really hungry and all you can eat on campus is muffins and cold things."

Hoffer would like to see the same enthusiasm and diversity present in Dalhousie and King's own food offerings.

What schools are doing:

Nicholas Hatt, Dean of Residence at King's for about 3 ½ years, has seen this trend first hand. While he has worked at the school, he has seen the requests from students with dietary restrictions go up year after year as the campus continues to diversify.

"It's certainly the trend," Hatt says.

Hatt meets with kitchen staff at King's on an almost daily basis. As the Dean of Residence, he is responsible for communicating students' individual dietary needs to the kitchen's staff members.

"I know that right now we have about 40 students who have special needs," Hatt says. "Religious restrictions, gluten-free, allergies, vegans, lactose (intolerance). Those are the basic ones that we deal with on a regular basis, but students come to us with all kinds of different restrictions."

Many universities, including King's, Dalhousie, Saint Mary's and Mount Saint Vincent, have mandatory meal plans for students who live in residence. If any students feel their diets cannot be accommodated for, they can make an appeal.
Despite this, Hatt is quick to point out that the small population size of universities such as King's makes it easier to meet individual students' needs. Celine Beland, the account director at King's for the universities food supplier, Sodexo, is able to accommodate requests by driving over to the grocery store at least twice a week to grab specific items for students on restricted diets, Hatt says. Those items are then kept behind the counter for those specific students, who can come in to request them. According to Hatt, the chefs will also prepare something in particular for those students alone.

"There's a bit of back and forth to accommodate those requests," he says.

Dalhousie is also trying to address students' dietary needs. Halal food can also be bought from both the Dawgfather and My Three Cousins, both of which are served on the street on University Avenue. Some vegetarian and gluten-free options can be found across campus, and some vegan options can be found in Howe Hall. But there is still room for improvement. Vegans are a type of vegetarian that not only abstain from meat, but also refuse to consume milk, eggs and honey. On Howe Hall's vegan menu for this past Monday - honey glazed kebabs.

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