Living Gluten Free Not Easy For Students With Celiac


Some students attempting to live gluten-free due to celiac disease are having a difficult time transitioning their diets to campus despite the best intentions of Mercy College’s food vendors.

Adding fresher ingredients to Main Hall’s cafeteria and doing an extreme makeover on Victory Hall, Lessing’s has proven that they are in fact listening to the suggestions of the student body.

Like any other school that promotes quality education, Mercy College does its best to provide students, both residential and commuter, with nutritious and gourmet food so that they may learn and perform to the best of their abilities. Lessing’s and Mercy both know that to lead a good quality life students need quality food. It is because of this belief that there is spinach in our salads, quinoa in our home zone.The company tries to do its very best to ensure that we not only have healthy food but we have a healthy and safe environment. The workers are trained to know how to deal the basic food allergies; they always wear gloves and always make it a point to try to accommodate customers to the best of their abilities because that is the way they were trained. However, there were some students who kept getting sick and not too many people n why. What Lessing’s has discovered is that there is a growing population of students who suffer from celiac disease at Mercy.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to difficulty in digesting food. The traditional response to this my most people who aren’t properly educated about the disease is “Got gas? Take Tums” or “ Backed up? Take a laxative.” What people don’t know is that Celiac is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.

If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to additional serious health problems. These include the development of other autoimmune disorders like Type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis (MS), dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and miscarriage, neurological conditions like epilepsy and migraines, short stature, and intestinal cancers.

Some people have such severe reactions to gluten that minimal contact with gluten can send them directly to the emergency room.

A representative of Lessing’s on the Dobbs Ferry campus stated that the staff is fully aware of the gluten issue and is doing its best to accommodate students.

We educate our staff on what Celiac is and how gluten is involved. We inform them about that qualifies as a gluten. We also inform them about the severities of cross contamination and train them on how to properly clean off knives and surfaces. We have a sanitizer to ensure that cross contamination is eliminated.”

Some students have complained about the choices available from Lessing’s, to which the representative responded, “It is something that we are striving to make more available.”

Lessing’s added, “We understand that being gluten free isn’t just a fad anymore, it’s a genuine health concern.”

The Impact asked if there was anything students could do to ensure that their needs were being met. Lessing’s mentioned “We try to increase our offerings and selections to accommodate people with that allergy. We accept suggestions for students as well.”

The Impact spoke to residential students who do suffer from celiac disease and ask them if they thought that the college and the meal plan was catering to their medical needs.

Olivia Kelleher, a sophomore at Mercy who also plays field hockey, first found out she had celiac disease last summer. “I started feeling very sick and very fatigued often,” said Kelleher. It was then that she visited a family doctor who ran test and explained to her that they discovered that the villi that lined her small intestine was deteriorated.

When asked if she felt that her dietary needs were being met at the college, Kelleher responded, “I think they have good intentions but they don’t, for lack of better words, respect the allergy.” Kelleher feels that most restaurants are uneducated when it comes to offering gluten-free choices. She then added, “I know it’s really hard, but I also feel that if there is only just a couple of students with the disease on campus, they shouldn’t mind being more careful.”

The Impact asked Kelleher if she could describe some of the difficulties she has had with the meal plan and there was a laundry list of things. She explained that the satisfaction of her meals depends largely on who is working. “There are some people who are really good with it. They put down wax paper and clean the knives,” explained Kelleher. She then commented “There are only a few people who understand how severe the disease is. They don’t know that they have to keep my food and food of other students separate.”

When asked if she had ever thought discontinuing her meal plan she responded “I have contemplated not getting a meal plan next year because it would be easier to cook. However, I feel it would be just as expensive.”

Although some students expressed that they have been able to survive adequately on their meal plan, other gluten-free students disagreed. There are other students on campus who have expressed their outrage with an inability to cater to their nutritional needs. One student even went as far as transferring out of the school because he could not bear the meal plan and the condition of the communal kitchens in the residential hall.

Michelle Devries is a freshmen accounting major at Mercy, and although she has tried to cope with her meal plan, the challenges of living gluten free seemed to overwhelmed her.

Devries first found out she had celiac disease last March when she ended up in the hospital for anemia.

“They figured out that I had some extreme deficiencies so they ran some test and found that I was positive for celiac,” said Devries.

Devries felt that the kitchen staff wasn’t trained properly to deal with allergies such as celiac. “They have actually refused to make me food if the cafeteria is busy because making my order would take too much time and back service up.”

She added, “There have been some occasions where I have asked for a gluten-free grilled cheese and they gave it to me on regular bread. Sometimes I ask for gluten-free bread and they look at me like I’m an idiot because they don’t know what that is.”

DeVries eventually decided that eat on campus was not in her best interest.  “I abandoned my meal plan because I only had choices to eat three to four items on a good day. It wasn’t worth it to me, so I just stopped.”