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Students With Allergies See Few Options At UF Dining Halls

Fresh Food Company is one of UF's on-campus dining halls.
Fresh Food Company is one of UF's on-campus dining halls.

When some students walk into the dining halls at the University of Florida, they see a room full of dietary restrictions.

Caroline Kaplan, 19, is allergic to milk, eggs, nuts and fish. During her freshman year, she said she found it difficult to find anything to eat on most days.

“There were countless occasions where I could not eat anything so [I] was forced to get a sub made at the sandwich station,” Kaplan said.

“When I asked the chefs making the food if their creations had a certain allergen in it, they were hesitant, and I didn't know if I could trust them.”

Even when Kaplan had the option to remove items she’s allergic to, some restaurants have still messed up her order, resulting in a reaction.

“Starbucks, on more than one occasion, has messed up my order and put dairy in my drink, causing me to get sick just with one sip,” she said.

Jill Rodriguez, the district marketing manager of Aramark, the company that operates Gator Dining Services, said they try to address the needs of students such as Kaplan. In some cases, accommodations could be made to students who make their allergies known, she said.

“Once the student identifies themselves, we will connect them with the Food Service Directors who oversee our two dining halls, the Fresh Food Company and Gator Corner Dining Center,” Rodriguez said.  “Ideally, they will meet and discuss any special needs or dietary restrictions they may have and we will develop a process from there to accommodate their needs, if feasible.”

Rodriguez also said the dining halls have digital displays for each station that show ingredients, and nutritional cards which list the ingredients are also available.

“The most important thing is that we know who they are," she said. "And that they are proactive in identifying themselves and that they ask questions of our staff if they are unsure of any ingredients in our meals."

But Kaplan said she thinks listing ingredients isn’t enough because food allergies can, in some situations, have life or death consequences.

“Technically, I can die from an allergic reaction, and they should really know that it's not something to ignore,” she said.

To raise the most awareness, Kaplan said something as simple as listing possible allergens at every food station could work.

Christian Cooper, 22, a student at UF, has Celiac Disease. Celiac is a more severe gluten allergy, where even preparing gluten-free ingredients in an area where flour or wheat are present, can cause a reaction.

Cooper said even though he took precautions and even informed the dining hall staff of his allergy, he didn’t experience much help to make eating easier.

“As a freshman, my mom and I talked to the Aramark rep and she was extremely unhelpful," he said. "She basically said if I couldn't eat anything on the meal plan, don't buy the meal plan."

Cooper also said the Aramark representative told him that UF would never have gluten-free dedicated options or stations at the dining hall due to a lack of need or demand.

According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

During his freshman and sophomore years, Cooper couldn't cook for himself and stayed on the meal plan. After moving off campus his junior year, he began cooking for himself.

Although gluten-free food is often more expensive than regular alternatives, Cooper said he believes the $1,800 meal plan per semester was still more expensive.

Cooper said he thinks a major improvement in dining services at UF would be opening restaurants or even stations inside dining halls dedicated solely to food allergies.

“It hurts me to see that UF is like a top vegan-friendly campus, which is usually a choice,” he said. “But UF does so little to support those with legitimate gluten-induced medical conditions."

Kat is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.