Tim Horton's on Dal campus is one of the restaurants that doesn't offer gluten-free food options to students. (Photo: Jonathan Briggins)

Universities struggle to cater special dietary needs

Students are not aware of the gluten-free food options available on campus.


Kendra Hoskin, a fourth-year King's student doesn't just prefer gluten-free food, she needs it.

After being diagnosed with celiac disease last year, she says she has never tried to eat on Dal or King's campus.

"I kind of assume I won't be able to eat anything," Hoskin says. She is not alone. Three students expressed concern about the need to include more gluten-free food options on campus when news spread Dal was getting a new food truck, posting comments under the news release that questioned where all the gluten-free options were for students with special dietary needs.

Gluten-free food is a necessity for students suffering from celiac disease, a medical condition where the small intestine is damaged by gluten--a protein found in wheat, rye, triticale and barley--resulting in the inability to soak up nutrients. Although there is no cure yet, celiac disease can be treated by following a gluten-free diet. According to the Canadian Celiac Association, one in every 133 Canadians suffers from celiac disease.

Allyson Kennedy, a fourth-year student at Dal who lives off campus and suffers from a gluten intolerance, rarely buys food from campus. She says gluten-free options are severely limited, making it difficult to buy food on campus.

"It seems only two per cent of everything available on campus is gluten-free."

Staci Farrant, registered dietitian at Dal, has read comments on the news release about Dal's new food truck, which voiced the concerns about the shortage of gluten-free food options on campus. She says that feeding the students is the number one priority and Dal makes sure those with dietary needs are accommodated. She branches out about the food truck, explaining the chefs changed some of their recipes, the falafel for example, to make it gluten free. That way, gluten-free french fries are also available since they share the same deep fryer. 

"Sometimes it's just a matter of asking if there are gluten free products available. We do accommodate the students."

What does Dal have to offer?

Dal campus has close to 20 food locations. Though most franchise restaurants on campus, such as Second Cup, Tim Horton's, Just Us! and Pizza Pizza don't offer gluten-free foods, Farrant says gluten-free products are available at the dining halls and the Killam Bistro in the library, which offers gluten-free stir fries.

Howe Hall has a high volume of students on a gluten-free diet. Farrant couldn't say how many because some students eat gluten-free by choice, not because they are celiac. It has the largest availability of gluten-free options on campus. It includes a gluten-free station with its own toaster, cutting board, and knives to eliminate chance of cross-contamination between products that carry gluten. "One crumb can make a student sick who suffers from celiac disease," says Farrant. To be safe, Farrant says all of the baked goods such as brownies and cookies need to be sourced from elsewhere because even flour in the air can contaminate goods.

Sometimes certain products aren't offered for safety precautions. "If we can't offer something because of possible flour contamination, we are not going to put a student at risk."

Farrant says any student can eat at Howe Hall or any other dining hall--even if they are not living on residence. She says students may not be aware of this option.

Kennedy says she ate at Dal's Shirreff Hall last year for the majority of second semester because she was finding it hard to keep a fridge full of food during the winter months. Kennedy said it did not have gluten-free options. "I was very limited in what I could eat. I basically ate salads."

Other Campuses

Dal campus is not the only campus in the HRM offering gluten-free meals. Celine Beland, the account director for Sodexo Food Services at King's says of the 300 students on a meal plan, roughly 30 students eat a gluten-free diet. She says there are gluten-free meal options for every meal every day at Prince Hall--the food service hall at King's--which includes cereals, breads and wraps. She goes to the store to buy special gluten-free products for students if there's demand for a certain food. "I do care a lot about the students here... they have to feel at home."

Beland says these options have always been available since she's has been working at King's for the last eight years.

SMU campus also offers a variety of gluten-free options. Erica Savage, registered dietitian for SMU, says the main dining hall has most of the gluten-free foods, including cereals, breads and wraps, along with a gluten-free meal every day, such as soup or pasta. She says it's hard to find these types of foods outside of the main dining hall, so they're trying to offer something for any student living on a gluten-free diet.

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