By PHONG LY
Next semester, Jessica Ehm, a rising junior, will be moving off campus and away from the meal plan at Drake. Ehm said she is looking forward to having a full kitchen and being able to prepare the food her body can actually digest.
“I have a stomach disease where my body doesn’t absorb nutrients how it’s supposed to, so I can’t have anything that’s harsh for my stomach,” Ehm said.
Ehm’s condition rendered her incapable of handling gluten, dairy, artificial sweeteners and flavors and even lettuce.
“I can have some breakfast options at Hubbell,” Ehm said. “So eggs, potatoes and some fruits but that’s about it; everything else is a big trigger for me.”
Ehm was diagnosed with the disease the summer after her first year at Drake.
“Last year, before I was diagnosed with my stomach issues, second semester was when it got really bad,” Ehm said. “I was unable to eat anything without being sick for multiple days.”
After getting different testing done, Ehm was put on a strict diet with different medications. Ever since then, she had to keep an eye out for what she put in her body, especially when the on-campus food options are out of her control.
“I can’t eat quad because the majority of the food there is processed and more of like your fast food option,” Ehm said. “Hubbell does a better job, but I’m also in a situation where I can’t have gluten, I can’t have dairy, I can’t even have lettuce, which really limits the options when living in a residence hall of how you can eat on campus and not get sick.”
The dining service at Drake is provided by Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company. They have several options for students with special dietary restriction. The campus dietitian, Luke Flaherty, said they dedicated a special station for food without the seven major allergies.
“We have a simple servings station that is located on the south side of the dining area that provides food that doesn’t contain shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat/gluten, soy, egg and dairy,” Flaherty said. “This is a hot meal option for students that can’t eat some of the other options we might be offering that day.”
In addition, Hubbell always has a protein option, a starch and a vegetable as well as a soup option for the day for those with special dietary needs. They also have an area located in the back of the dining hall, near the pizza area called “MyZone”. This area is dedicated to food options that don’t contain gluten/wheat, as well as peanut and tree nut free options for students.
“This area contains things like breads, bagels, wraps, pasta, muffins, cookies, waffles, cereals and burritos, as well as a few dairy free options like soy yogurt, vegan margarine and dairy free cheese,” Flaherty said. “There is also a microwave and toaster that is to only be used for gluten free items to decrease any risk of contamination for those with celiac disease.”
The Drake dietitian also mentioned Sodexo trains their staff twice per year to ensure that they are up-to-date with the procedures of handling allergens-free food.
“I also work with them daily to ensure they are following all the procedures we have in place,” Flaherty said. “All the food for the simple servings line is prepared in a separate part of the kitchen and certain pots, pans and utensils are dedicated to the preparation of the food.”
For their “My Zone” area, all the food is prepackaged and stored in Flaherty’s office and a separate area in their freezer.
“We purchase all of our foods from the same vendors, but it is my job to ensure that the foods we are using do not contain any allergens,” Flaherty said.
Junior Lauren Lerner, a vegetarian, thinks that the food at Hubbell and Quad is not diverse enough for people with dietary restriction such at herself.
“If you are vegetarian or vegan, most of the time it’s like ‘have a salad’ and I’m like ‘I would like something else please,’” Lerner said. “The entrée options were never that many options or it was just the same option over and over again.”
Lerner thinks Sodexo could expand their food options for people with certain restrictions such as herself.
“I know there is more than just tofu for meat substitute,” Lerner said.
As for Ehm’s situation, she worked closely with the campus dietitian, Luke Flaherty, to figure out what they are able to do for her food-wise.
“I worked closely with Luke and he was really helpful moving me down from a full-time meal plan to a commuter meal plan,” Ehm’s said.
Despite having the meal plan, Ehm still prepares her food for the week every Sunday.
“I’m still not able to use that meal plan as often as I would like to, so it does make it harder on me financially to have to pay for a meal plan and also have to meal prep,” Ehm said. “It’s a requirement for my first two years and I can’t get away from it, but it is better now than it was before.”
Flaherty said Sodexo has a policy in place with Drake to allow students to be released from the meal plans if the campus food options are unable to accommodate certain students’ dietary needs.
“It is a process that requires medical documentation, then I typically meet with the student to see if we can help accommodate any of their needs,” Flaherty said. “If unable to do so, I will meet with resident life and we will determine whether or not we can release them from the plan.”
According to Flaherty, Sodexo has a large database of recipes that are allergy free that employees can search for and prepare for their Simple Servings station in Hubbell Dining Hall.
“As for the MyZone area, I am always asking students what they would like to see in that area,” Flaherty said. “Since I am not gluten-free, I don’t always know what the best products are so I am always looking for input so there is a comment box in that area for requests.”
Photo courtesy of Phong Ly