If you're a gluten free high school student starting to look at colleges, you've probably wondered how difficult it will be to maintain your diet over four years at college. While your speical dietary needs aren't the only factor weighing in your college decision, it can be an important part of the decision. After all, you'll be spending four years there, and depending on the college, on-campus dining may be your only option for meals.
Fortunately, there are plenty of online resources to help you assess the degree of gluten free friendliness of the colleges you may be considering. A couple years ago we launched a section of our website devoted to Gluten Free College Reviews. Gluten free students have submitted reviews of their colleges' dining services, from a gluten free perspective. Feedback ranges from colleges that offer a limited choice of plain options like grilled chicken or fish, baked potoato, and steamed veggies -- to colleges that give plenty of choices which can even be ordered in advance and ready for you upon your arrival at the dining hall. Perhaps you'll find a review of a college you've been considering.
We encourage gluten free college reviewers to share advice about WHO to speak with in College Dining Services, WHAT questions to ask, WHERE on campus gluten free meals are served, and WHEN it is recommended to make contact about one's dietary needs (the summer before school starts or when arriving on campus). I personally am of the "earlier is better" mentality. I think it's a good idea to speak directly with someone on the Dining Services staff before even making a final decision about whether to attend that college. You don't want any unwelcome surprises when you arrive!
Fortunately, due to a court ruling involving Lesley University several years ago, a precedent was set whereby colleges are required to make gluten free meals (and other special meals) available to students who require them. It's great to see more colleges getting educated about how to safely prepare gluten free meals for the growing number of students that need them. Some colleges label gluten free items in the cafeteria and still others even allocate a special area, refrigerator, and freezer to store gluten free staples for their GF students to access at any time.
Many colleges will also take special requests to stock favorite items and brands. From the reviews we've received from students, it sounds like we've got a way to go, but we're making progress. Over the past few years, Udi's Gluten Free has made great strides in getting their popular products like sandwich bread, bagels, cookies, granola, and muffins into more and more college dining halls.
If you're already narrowed your choices of colleges down, I'd also strongly recommend going into the Dining Services area of each of their websites. Many have information about how they handle special dietary needs, and they may even provide contact information for the person you should speak with.
It's also important to get tips from gluten free college students about how to make the most of your gluten free dining experience over your four years, no matter which college you select. For a couple years, we published a Thriving Gluten Free @ College blog series showcasing the posts of gluten free college student Julie Bourne, who also had her own gluten free college blog at the time. She recently graduated, but her posts for our blog are timeless and provide advice on dining in the cafetaria, dining out, and making the most of a kitchen you might have access to. She even shares her thoughts on selecting the right college and staying safely gluten free when studying abroad or working as a summer intern.
The first couple years on campus are usually the most difficult, as it takes a while to get up to speed on the gluten free options offered, which dining halls are the best, and how careful the dining staff is about avoiding cross contamination in preparing, serving, and displaying gluten free choices. At many schools, students don't typically have a kitchen of their own until their upperclass years. Then, if you're lucky enough to get an apartment, you'll have a lot more control over what you eat (you'll just need to educate your roommates!).
The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) also has many resources for gluten free college students on their website, and we work closely with them to spread the word about colleges that have gone through their GREAT Schools gluten free training program. In fact, you'll see that many of the schools in our listing have completed the NFCA training.
If you know any gluten free folks currently attending college, PLEASE encourage them to take a few minutes to submit a review of their college's dining services, from a gluten free perspective. Our goal is to get ALL colleges based in the U.S. reviewed within this section of our site. It's easy to submit a reivew...it's just like submitting a restaurant review on our website. Simply go to Submit Review, and follow the prompts from there -- choosing "College" when you get to the review form and are prompted for the type of venue.
We wish you the best of luck in your search and welcome your feedback as you go through the process! It's an exciting time in the gluten free world, and things are only getting better!