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When I arrived at Harvard, one of my primary concerns was not making friends or picking my classes, but rather navigating the dining hall. I have life-threatening allergies to milk and tree nuts. I’ve needed an EpiPen on multiple occasions despite taking extreme caution every day and have ended up in the emergency room in the aftermath of these reactions.
So it’s not surprising that my food allergies were an incredibly important consideration in choosing a college. There was no margin for error; I would be eating at this new school three times a day for four years. After facing challenging dining experiences at two different school dining halls in middle and high school, I recognized the weight of my decision.
Recent articles have presented student criticisms of the dining experience for students with food allergies and celiac disease at Harvard. A few students have expressed concerns about the possibility of cross-contamination in the self-serve areas and the fact that complete and updated ingredient lists must be accessed online rather than posted by each food. One student wrote that the “email method,” in which students with food allergies order individualized cooked-to-order meals by sending an email to dining services, was “reinventing the wheel.” Ironically, this is exactly the program I had hoped to find in a college dining hall.
I am one of the students on the “email method.” I email Annenberg each night and let them know what time I’ll be eating meals during the next day and what I’d like for each meal. They’ll make me a safe version of anything they have available and double-check all ingredients. I usually order a “safe” version of something from the grill menu, but any time there’s something special like mussels or salmon (personal favorites) on the line, I’ve emailed and asked whether it was possible to cook them in a way that avoided my allergens. On each occasion, the dish that appeared filled me with gratitude because it was clear how much thought and attention had been put into creating a safe dish for me.
There’s no doubt that the “email method” requires a bit of planning on the student’s part. As I was deciding on what college to attend, I met with the dining hall manager and head chef and expressed concern about the email method, and particularly about what would happen if my plans changed last minute. Annenberg’s manager assured me that they understood that students’ plans are fluid, and that there would be no consequences if I ordered a meal and didn’t pick it up. No harm, no foul. There have been times when I’ve arrived early for a meal or forgotten to place my order the night before. In each instance, a chef has cheerfully asked me to wait just five minutes while they prepared a safe made-to-order meal. I am constantly appreciative of the unflagging devotion of the Annenberg team to student health and well-being.
By definition, a food allergy is a marker of difference. For years, I sat awkwardly at birthday parties while my friends had pizza and ice cream. College is no different. Nearly every event requires intervention. Whether it’s the Crimson Jam or simply dinner at a restaurant with a friend, food is a part of nearly everything we do. I understand the desire to inhabit the world like everyone else, to pull food off the line without checking ingredients online or placing an order the night before. For me, the goal is always safety and the fact that HUDS has a process in place to keep me safe (a process that has, to date, resulted in zero reactions while in college) is far more important than the ability to wait in line with hundreds of my closest friends.
Of course, I would never presume to speak for all students with allergies at Harvard. We are all different, whether it’s the sensitivity of our allergy or our level of comfort in trusting others to cook our food. Having food allergies means that in order to keep ourselves safe, we lose a certain amount of spontaneity. Can Harvard do better? Clearly some people think so, and I suspect that Harvard’s structure of a separate dining hall for each house presents unique challenges for students who don’t know in what dining hall they’ll be eating the next day. Fair enough. But I’m grateful that Harvard offers a cook-to-order program and that every single HUDS worker I’ve ever spoken to has shown through word and deed that my safety and happiness matters. As students with allergies speak up about their dining needs, let’s not forget that these are real people working to keep us safe. Suggesting that we shouldn’t have to experience a moment of inconvenience or lose a tiny bit of spontaneity when there is quite literally a chef waiting to cook you your very own safe meal while you skip the line reeks of entitlement. I have deep gratitude for the ways in which the workers at Annenberg have made my Harvard experience exponentially easier (and less stressful) than I expected it to be.
Orlee G. S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial Editor, lives in Greenough Hall.
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