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The Gluten Free College Search

A guest post by Denise, parent of a gluten-free teen. We asked Denise to share some ideas for how to find out the best information about gluten-free campus life.

Good nutrition, prior to pregnancy, was your first step in caring for your child. And ever since (as a newly pregnant parent-to-be) your first trip into a store to “pick up something for the baby” left you in tears (because how could you possibly know what to even buy for a new baby???), you’ve had an inkling that you were about to embark on a complex yet rewarding journey.

There were early milestones. First tooth, first steps, preschool graduations, recreational sports awards, student of the month, religious rites of passage, and now, faster than you could’ve imagined (but often not soon enough) high school graduation looms in the future.

Now caring for your child involves helping your child decide which higher-level learning institution is worthy of your child (taking over the “in loco parentis” reigns). Factors to consider are majors, campus safety, employment opportunities (including co-ops, internships, and post-graduation careers), financial needs, and, for your child, the university’s ability to provide a steady, nutritious diet for a gluten-free young adult.

To streamline the college exploration process, Nima asked me to do some initial research investigating university life for gluten-free students. The universities explored were diverse covering the West and East coasts with stops along the way in the Midwest. Both private and public institutions were explored with undergraduate student populations ranging from just under 1000 to over 50,000. Annual cost of attendance at these universities ranged from about $22,000 to about $71,000.

The summary information conveyed below consolidates information from a variety of sources. Please be sure to check directly with universities of interest to your student to find out specifically how a particular university addresses any of these issues.

Here are some tips to expedite your research on behalf of your college-bound gluten-free student.

Skip admissions. Go directly to dining services. Admissions offices are not necessarily equipped to handle specific questions regarding gluten-free nutrition and generally refer callers to some combination of dining services and/or housing.

Prepare for the conversation. In order to obtain an “apples to apples” comparison, develop a single list of questions that you can use for each university you research. After receiving verbal information from each university, ask where you can find written documentation to confirm information. Remember that during the time that lapses between your initial research and the time your student prepares to enter the university, any of these details may change. So you will need to reconfirm prior to sending your child off to college.

Allocate sufficient time for the conversation. Websites are complex. Organizational structures vary. There is a large emotional component to the research you are conducting. Allow sufficient time for a thorough conversation. Listen for nuances. Does the staff person you’re speaking with sound knowledgeable? Will you need to follow up with another staff person?

Time zones. PST, CST, EST? Remember your child may travel far from home. (A benefit or a detriment depending on your child’s perspective versus your perspective.) Keep time zones in mind when planning calls. Website content can be overwhelming. Be at your computer while on the phone with dining or housing representatives. Explain your child’s nutritional needs to the campus representative. Have the representative walk you through the website until you get to the landing pages that answer your questions. Specific URLs are a handy resource. Be sure to keep track of them either by pasting them into a document or bookmarking.

Does the university use terms other than gluten-free? Individual universities may vary in the terminology they use. For example, one university uses “products made without gluten” in lieu of the term “gluten-free.” Knowing the university-specific terminology will facilitate website research and any further discussions.

Is advance notice required to feed my student during campus visits or orientation? The trend is that dining halls are prepared to feed gluten-free students at each meal. Therefore, advance notification is not required. (Although some institutions do inquire about dietary restrictions on orientation registration forms.) This is a detail that you should verify prior to your student’s visit to any university.

On a daily basis, as a resident student, who will my student contact if he or she has questions regarding gluten-free food options? Universities recognize that daily issues may arise and are glad to have the student establish a relationship with either a chef, a dietitian, or dining hall management staff. Implicit in this relationship is that your student will be able to use self-advocacy and planning skills.

Is digital access to daily meals gluten-free friendly? Online menu postings vary from menus that lack gluten-free icons to menus that include gluten-free filters which enable a student to determine which gluten-free options are available at each dining location. (A shout-out goes to Ohio State University – check out their allergen friendly menu filters.)

Are gluten-free meals included in the cost of my student’s dining plan? Yes. Each university queried indicated gluten-free meals were included in the cost of the dining plan.

Can my student request a gluten-free residence hall, gluten-free floor in a residence hall, or a gluten-free roommate? There is some variability across universities on this issue ranging from ‘no requests can be made’ to ‘we are open to those requests and will try to accommodate the student.’ (There is a caveat here – students on 504 plans may be able to be accommodated on housing requests through the university’s Office of Disabilities – stay tuned for additional posts regarding 504 accommodations for gluten-free students.)

Is medical documentation required for gluten-free meal options for the resident student? No. None of the universities we talked with required medical documentation for gluten-free meals.

Who will be looking out for my student to make sure he or she eats healthy, well-balanced, gluten-free meals? Your student will be in charge of his or her own nutrition. Hopefully, by this point in his or her journey towards adulthood, your student has obtained a level of self-sufficiency geared towards proactive self-care. Universities may offer a variety of staff to support your self-advocating student. A few universities may even have staff take who take on a more parental oversight role with your student. But don’t count on it. (One smaller university mentioned staff taking on a maternal oversight role, however, larger universities had the expectation that the student would seek out help and support when needed.)

Rest assured, your student will be able to safely feed both his or her mind and body. Once the appropriate personnel were located to speak with (i.e., in either dining or housing), university staff were well aware of the need for gluten-free food and were equipped to meet the nutritional needs of the gluten-free student.

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