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Help Finding Colleges with a Gluten-Free Friendly Environment

Our older son will be choosing a college soon and embarking on the next chapter of his life in the Fall. While he does not have Celiac -- and no dietary restrictions that we know of -- our younger son (currently a sophomore) does. While it is still over two years from the start of college for him, we all know how quickly the time goes, and before we know it, he will be in the throes of evaluating what colleges to apply to. My hope has always been that he would be able to go to any of the colleges he is accepted into -- without worrying about the gluten free scene on campus. 

DSCN0114While I'm not sure we are completely "there" yet, I am encouraged by the progress colleges across the country have made regarding providing gluten free options for their Celiac and gluten sensitive students. (The settlement agreement between the United States of America and Lesley University in Massachusetts back in 2012 regarding students with food allergies, helped. The Justice Department expanded the definition of "disability" to include food allergies, and said all students must enjoy reasonable access to dining facilities trained on allergen and food safety awareness.) But as is the case when dining out in restaurants, there remains a wide range of what we would consider a "gluten free friendly" campus. Some colleges undoubtedly have a wider selection of gluten free choices than others, and there are varying stages of knowledge and protocol when it comes to avoiding any potential for cross contamination. 

Surely, this is a serious matter of consideration when choosing a school. While you want the choice of college to be primarily made based on the academic program in your child's field of study -- as well as factors such as cost, location, size, and an enriching campus life -- dining will (and should) undoubtedly play a role. After all, your son or daughter will be spending at least 8 months per year over 4 years dining three times each day in the dining halls or campus restaurants and cafes. You want to know they are getting enough to eat; are getting the nutritious foods they need for their physical, mental, and emotional health; have enough variety so they won't be eating the same boring choices every day; and aren't getting sick from lack of awareness or training in the university's dining venues. 

DSCN0173Here are Some Questions to Ask When Delving Into the Dining Scene on Any College Campus: 

  • Is there a dining hall dedicated to gluten free dining? (Some universities have one now.)
  • How many dining halls on campus offer gluten free options? 
  • Are there a variety of choices at each meal -- or just one or two items offered on any given day? 
  • If it isn't a dedicated gluten free dining hall, do they prepare GF meals in a separate area? 
  • What measures do they take to avoid cross contamination?
  • How are their staff trained? 
  • Do students with special dietary needs have access to an area of the kitchen "between meals" where they can prepare a snack, a sandwich, or grab a cookie or muffin?
  • Do the student's gluten free meal choice need to be requested before each meal via text or other method -- or can they just walk into the dining hall and know that choices will already be prepared and available? 
  • What speciality restaurants and cafes on campus (both campus owned and independent) offer gluten options?
  • Are gluten free staples like decent sandwich bread, pasta, pizza crust, hamburger rolls, cereal, and granola (with certified gluten free oats) kept on hand? 
  • Is cross contamination an issue at buffets and salad bars? What is the alternative for students who are gluten free? 

IMG_7110We do have a listing of colleges that have been reviewed on our website by gluten free students. I will acknowledge that many of the 80+ reviews are a bit old...we haven't seemed to be able to get a lot of traction with people submitting college reviews on a regular basis. However, it is a great place to start. If you see a college on the list that has been on your radar, click through to read the review. All reviews also have a link to the university's website (often times, it's a link specifically to the Dining page), so you can read about the school's policies and offerings for students with special dietary needs.

A few noteworthy colleges that have been singled out for being extremely gluten free friendly in our listing are Cornell University, Kent State, North Carolina State University, Ohio University, Old Dominion University, Pepperdine University, Rice University, Tulane University, University of Chicago, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado Boulder. Many of these have been certified by Beyond Celiac (formerly the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness) GREAT Schools, Colleges, and Camps program. Again, visit the website of each of these colleges for the most recent information. 

IMG_5756Once your son or daughter has narrowed down their list of colleges they will be applying to, I recommend digging deeper into each university's gluten free know-how. Call the Dining department directly, and request to schedule a time to talk with the dietician, nutritionist, or Director of Dining Services. Your child should be involved in this call, rather delegating it to you. If the college is local, going in for an in-person meeting is even better. The time spent on this in-depth, first-hand research will be well worth it when it comes to making an informed decision about where to spend their college years --  years that are meant to be somewhat carefree to immerse oneself into academic pursuits and campus life. They are not going to want to be stressing about each meal, day after day...or settling for bland, nutritionally deficient meals that offer little variety. 

If you have comments about any of the universities listed on the page linked above, by all means click the "Add Your Own Review To The Ones Below" link on the page with the review of that college. Or, if you have feedback about a college that isn't yet reviewed/listed, click on Submit a Review from the navigation bar on any page of our site. You submit a college review just like you would as restaurant review, selecting College/University as the type of venue. This will greatly help the tens -- or hundreds -- of thousands of gluten free college students trying to make sense of this big life choice. Thank you!