Desmond Hanan walks into the buffet area of John Jay Dining Hall—past the vegan, nut-free, and gluten-free stations, the crowds of people in front of the drink machines, the grill, and the salad bar. Then a Columbia College sophomore, Hanan navigates the dinner rush crowd to the desserts. Cakes sit on pedestals, soft serve swirls in its machines beside chocolate sprinkles and marshmallows, chocolate sauce, and warm caramel. This evening, they are also serving blondies—thick chocolate chip cookie squares—stacked into pyramids on a counter. He picks one up.
Sitting at a table with his friends, he takes a bite of this thick square of chocolate chip cookie delight, which he has plucked from the main section of the dining hall, one well-oiled machine feeding endless waves of students daily. As he chews, he realizes that what he had thought was a white chocolate chip was, in fact, a walnut.
Hanan did not plan on visiting St. Luke’s that night—classes would officially begin for the semester the next morning—and he certainly did not plan his allergy. Walnuts, other tree nuts, and, surprisingly, bananas, count among Hanan’s known poisons.
Before crises like these arise, Columbia Dining encourages current or prospective students with dietary restrictions to meet with Christina Lee, the registered dietitian, to get more information on customizable meal plans or nutrition. Columbia Dining serves approximately 5,400 students, with a little over 700 registered for various dietary accommodations. Given the “overwhelming” nature of dining halls, as Lee describes them, students can take virtual tours of dining halls online, or sign up for in-person tours led by Lee herself.
Throughout my conversation with Lee, I am reminded multiple times that the dining team will seek solutions, as long as students are willing to make them aware of their needs. “We take allergies very seriously,” Lee says.
In fact, Columbia Dining’s managers and chefs must undergo a webinar tutorial and score 80 percent or above on an exam in order to earn the Food Allergy Research and Education certification. The impetus to do so came recently, in March 2017, seven months after Hanan’s incident. Before, staff underwent an orientation program every August.
Hanan recounts his experience to me in Butler Cafe, which, he explains, even after his ordeal with John Jay, causes him greater anxiety than any of the dining halls on campus. Here, rows of cakes studded with nuts are stacked above, below, and beside what seem to be benign muffins and croissants. Students without dietary restrictions might not think anything of this haphazard arrangement, but Hanan and others with life-threatening allergies think twice, perhaps deciding that a pastry isn’t worth it and just sticking to coffee. Like installing a ramp for students who cannot use stairs, employing cautionary labels and dividers between food items seems a logistically reasonable solution to accessibility issues.
Buffet-style dining, offered at nearly every dining hall on campus, can be particularly hazardous for people with food allergies. Hanan points out that patrons use utensils from neighboring sections when the appropriate one cannot be found, or transfer residue from their own plates onto the buffet food; any variety of foods displayed in close proximity inevitably present the risk of cross-contamination. Even the rush of the crowd, forming long, impatient lines, produces a tension as palpable as the heat from the buffet and thus an environment that impedes one’s careful deliberation about the likelihood of such perils.
The threat skyrockets off campus, where businesses from coffee shops to ice cream stores can neglect to separate the food that contains known allergens from others for the safety of their customers. And this says nothing of restaurants, whose kitchens, hidden from view, could be stir-frying and grilling danger, their conditions riddled with deceptively uncontrolled variables. Still, people with allergies like Hanan must make a concerted effort to scan their menus beforehand for red-flag ingredients, in hopes that they are accurate, and altogether avoid some places known for incorporating tree nuts into their recipes.
Aside from physically separating common allergens from their food, John Jay, Ferris Booth Commons, and JJ’s Place all feature designated “Nut Zones,” separate tables for foods containing nuts, as well as, more recently, disclaimers informing students that certain foods have been manufactured in facilities that process nuts and to contact the manager with any doubts.
All this caution tape raises a question: How often do incidents like Hanan’s occur, and how conscientious is Columbia Dining?
Hanan tells me that he worked with Columbia Dining to sort out the cost of his hospital bill, and ultimately the incident hasn’t dented his strong trust in their dietary restrictions policies. Talking about his blondie incident, he says, “There’s a hundred different reasons why that could’ve happened. … Plus, I really love desserts.”
It is this kind of strong love or, perhaps, a tired acceptance of the inconveniences that come with having a food allergy, that might convince students who must avoid common foods that there isn’t much else that can be done.
And indeed, what can be done, does not always seem to be done without error. The food identification system present in the dining halls, which labels sections of food as gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, or containing soy or eggs, has been in place for decades. But students have claimed that mislabeling has occurred on multiple occasions.
I meet Soraya Beheshti, a student in her second year at General Studies, in Joe Coffee. She describes how one morning she uncharacteristically thought to check the online menu for John Jay Dining Hall and read that “African Chicken Soup” would be served that day. However, the soup was labeled vegan. Undeterred by its meaty appearance, Beheshti, who’d been vegan for five years, tasted it, and knew immediately that something was wrong.
After Beheshti alerted Dining staff, she said staffers left to find the manager, who then went to consult the chef—the soup was in fact made with real meat. “They were kind of sorry, but at the same time, some people avoid meat and stuff for religious reasons and I can understand why they would be really, really upset if they ate something by accident,” Beheshti says. Indeed, the first time she tried calamari was by accident: due to a cross-contamination in the John Jay buffet, a piece ended up on her plate and she mistook it for pasta. According to a spokesperson for Columbia Dining, staff members will try to rectify mistakes like this one as soon as students bring them to their attention.
Like Hanan, Beheshti retains a positive view of Columbia Dining’s ability to meet the needs of students, despite these incidences. She believes Columbia has one of the most accommodating dining hall systems in the country (it earns an “A” rating on the peta2 “Vegan Report Card” evaluation, on which the state average is a “B”), one that she says earns the admiration of her friends from other schools. The problem that any vegan-friendly establishment must continuously face, she says, is the elusiveness of recipes for the vegan counterparts of popular sweets or baked goods.
Cassia Patel, a senior in the Dual Degree program between Wesleyan University and SEAS, is the treasurer of the Columbia Vegan Society and vegan. She tells me, between bites of her Beyond Meat Burger from JJ’s Place, an addition to the menu implemented just this semester, that Columbia Dining “could try a little bit harder.” But her critique comes with hesitation. “I know they’re trying. Thank you,” she tells me, as though she were speaking directly to Dining staff.
Patel relates stories from other members of the vegan community, who have come across items in the dining halls that were vegetarian but not dairy-free and still labeled ‘vegan.’ Though less extreme than the African Chicken Soup episode, these oversights seem to minimize the importance of the diet choices students make for a multitude of health-related, ethical, or environmental reasons.
Some students with dietary restrictions that aren’t as well-represented as nut allergies or veganism face a different type of issue altogether: online misinformation. Max Edeson, a sophomore at Columbia College, points to the difficulty of signing up for a kosher meal plan.
Students indicate their interest in signing up for a specialized meal plan on the housing application before the start of the semester. This is where Edeson’s obstacles began. Sitting with me in the bustling upper-level section of Ferris, which he rarely visits, he works himself up recounting the story.
When Edeson was signing up for a kosher meal plan before his first year, one page on the Columbia Dining website had previously listed the Columbia Kosher Plan with a 10 percent additional cost, while another page claimed that both kosher or halal plans were available at no extra cost. A brief footnote at the bottom of the second page offers the option to enroll in Barnard’s kosher dining plan, which is described as “more comprehensive,” providing “3 meals a day, 7 days a week” overseen by the Columbia/Barnard Hillel rabbi.
Having still not figured out his payment plan by the time he arrived on campus, Edeson depended on the grace period for meal plan changes during NSOP while scrambling for a solution, the fear that he would be turned away at the front of the dinner rush line mounting with each swipe.
I brought this discrepancy in online information to Lee’s attention. After attributing it to perhaps a “small line of fine print” that had been missed, Columbia Dining has since rectified the error, ensuring that online resources no longer state that the kosher plan is any more expensive than others. Yet the delay in doing so, Edeson suggests, has allowed for confusion to spread as upperclassmen, unaware of the actual policy, recommend meal plans to incoming kosher students.
While information on how to eat at Columbia and Barnard for kosher students is limited, kosher accommodations at dining halls are even more so. These are offered through John Jay Dining Hall and Hewitt Hall through the schools’ separate meal plans. However, Edeson tells me that Hewitt is considered “the only place you get real kosher food,” since John Jay’s explicitly kosher options are just Kosher Deli meals distributed by Fresko, a company that manufactures “fresh kosher” brand food. And unlike Hewitt, where there are buffet-style Kosher options to choose from, John Jay offers a maximum of four kosher items per swipe, a system similar to that of the “breakfast swipe” at JJ’s Place. A swipe at John Jay can buy “a sandwich or a salad, and then a cookie of some form,” Edeson explains, ticking the items off on his hand. “You get a drink, and then you can just get fruit.” Fruit is always kosher.
Columbia Dining faces the unique challenge of providing inclusive spaces for people with a vast, unpredictable variety of dietary restrictions, from food allergies, to veganism, to religious observances, all of whom deserve institutional validation. Will there be, or can there be, a better, safer system than the one in place—one that succeeds in making all students feel welcome and equally at home?
“On average, they probably are doing a better job than other people,” Hanan surmises. “That’s not to say that they shouldn’t try to improve.”
Have fun leafing through our third issue, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter, As We See It!