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When Dining Is Dangerous

By Olivia S. Graham
Olivia S. Graham ’21 is a Computer Science concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

My mom was driving me home from the airport when I first listened to the 40-second voicemail from my doctor, confirming the results of my biopsy. I had just finished up my sophomore year at Harvard, and the last thing I was expecting was to be diagnosed with celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease for which the only effective treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. I used to be an adventurous eater, but today, most food items scare me. Something that tastes good in the moment might leave me fully incapacitated for the rest of the day, lying in bed with a head-splitting migraine and stomach pain.

Sure, bread and pasta are off-limits. But, did the kitchen use clean utensils? Was the food prepared on shared surfaces? I have a million questions. When 20 parts per million of gluten threaten your health, every meal you eat represents a risk.

I took the fall semester off for an internship and learned how to manage my newfound restrictions while living on my own. But I was shocked to learn how difficult it would be to manage these same restrictions at Harvard. Last October, I visited campus, excited to see my blockmates and feel like a student again. However, walking into the dining hall, I felt a wave of stress wash over me. Sure, some of the ingredients were listed in minuscule print — but I had no way of knowing how the food had been prepared. I had no way of knowing if it would make me sick.

I grabbed some fruit and choked back tears as I thought about how difficult navigating food at Harvard would be. I felt distinctly other, overlooked by the current system in place. All I wanted was to feel like a Harvard student again, but it was clear that with my diagnosis, Harvard no longer felt like home.

Given the lack of information online, I reached out to the Accessible Education Office and Harvard University Dining Services to learn more about how I was meant to navigate the dining halls. I learned that as a student with celiac, if I want to eat a safe meal, I should email a specific dining hall the day before and let them know what I want to eat. I am meant to follow this “email method” for all meals, every single day that I am on campus.

A big part of my Harvard experience has been spontaneity — I go to office hours and sometimes eat there. I eat with friends in their residential Houses. The current system of dietary accommodations unfairly constrains students with allergies, preventing them from freely participating in activities at Harvard. It should not be this difficult to access safe food.

I conducted an informal survey, and found that students on campus echoed my concerns. Some students found themselves unable to eat in the dining halls, despite having to pay for an unlimited meal plan. Some had given up trying to obtain reasonable accommodations, defeated by a system that refused to listen to their concerns. Some students found the “email method” to be such an inconvenience that they parsed the ingredient lists instead, and sometimes suffered allergic reactions.

Think about that — the current system is so difficult that some students choose to risk their health rather than follow it. I was devastated. My peers had confirmed what I suspected: Living with a dietary restriction at Harvard is no easy task.

I spent hours speaking to the Dean of Students Office, the AEO, and HUDS, only to be told that the accommodations in place should be sufficient. My only frustration grew when I researched the protocols in place at peer institutions such as Stanford, Yale, Columbia, or Cornell and found that Harvard’s protocols greatly lagged behind them, rendering Harvard far less accessible to students with allergies or dietary restrictions.

At Stanford, for example, a full-time nutritionist works with allergic students to ensure accessible food options. Stanford Dining identifies the top 9 major allergens that are contained in, or may have come in contact with, the foods that they serve. Among the Ivy League, while Columbia, Yale, Cornell, and many others have already gone above and beyond to accommodate students with allergies, why has Harvard been so slow to identify top allergens on the serving line and hire a dietitian on the dining staff?

After my diagnosis, I found myself thinking about whether I would have chosen to attend Harvard had I been diagnosed earlier, given that other schools have far more robust programs in place to accommodate students like me.

When my younger sister was diagnosed with celiac disease a few months after me, I nearly cautioned her not to apply to Harvard. Eating at Harvard is a hassle. The friction inherent to the current accommodations is not only disappointing but embarrassing for the University as a whole.

After months of calling, it seems that the administration is finally beginning to understand: These protocols need to change. I appreciate the time that HUDS, the AEO, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, as well as President Lawrence S. Bacow, have spent discussing this topic with me. I am especially thankful to Philip Zeller, my dining hall manager, who could not have been more helpful and accommodating throughout this process. But, I still cannot recommend this process to my sister: The system in place limits my ability to navigate Harvard freely.

I may be a Harvard student with celiac disease, but I am still a Harvard student. And I know one thing for sure: Harvard must do better.

Olivia S. Graham ’21 is a Computer Science concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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