At the end of each week, I always find myself left with an abundance of meal swipes. Unlike my friends, most of whom regularly eat at the Barnard and Columbia dining halls for at least two meals per day, I usually end up using less than five of my 19 meals each week.
However, this isn’t by choice. Despite the complaints I hear from friends about bland food and excessively long lines in the dining halls, I would love nothing more than to be able to eat three meals a day in John Jay, Ferris, or Diana, but I am allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, seeds, tropical fruit, and legumes. Coming into contact with even a trace of any of these allergens through a shared preparation area or someone using the same utensil for multiple dishes will trigger an episode of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
Despite the fact that I probably only consume $15 worth of food from Barnard and Columbia Dining per week, and despite the fact that my allergist has verified my food allergies with the Office of Disability Services on my behalf, I am still required to purchase the first-year Platinum meal plan from Barnard. For the 2018-19 school year, this means 19 meal swipes per week and 120 points per semester, with the total cost coming to $6,790.
$6,790 for salad, packaged cereal, and the occasional banana.
For those of us who suffer from severe allergies, the risk of accidental exposure to a seemingly innocuous morsel of food is simply too great. Despite the well-intentioned Barnard and Columbia Dining staff, for people with allergies like myself, we are literally placing our lives in someone else’s hands whenever we choose to venture to one of the dining halls. Just by virtue of the number of students for whom they are preparing food, it is unreasonable to expect dining staff to be able to avoid all types of cross-contamination as they stir, slice, and fry in the kitchen.
And regardless of the fact that I have learned to consider the potential allergens in every food situation, I know that it’s plausible that food items delivered from outside vendors could be mislabeled or may contain traces of allergens from the factory preparation process. At buffet-style food setups, which are common throughout our dining halls, students are left to their own devices and could accidentally use the same serving utensil for different dishes. In our dining halls, these facts that many take for granted are important considerations for me. Because of these risks, I’m only able to eat from the salad bars in Ferris, Hewitt, or John Jay, and places like JJ’s are out of the question.
And yet, I am fortunate, in a sense, because despite Barnard’s lack of willingness to accommodate me with a smaller meal plan, my Barnard financial aid package does cover the cost of the Platinum plan. However, I am not the only one at Barnard and Columbia who has multiple anaphylactic allergies, and I know others who have been resigned to paying full price for a first-year meal plan without being able to eat the food the school is serving (all Columbia first-years are required to buy a meal plan, and Barnard students are required to buy one for all four years).
But why is this still the case? There are many first-years at Barnard and Columbia whose financial circumstances would be significantly less stressful if their dining plans were smaller; therefore, it should be easier for those of us with dietary restrictions to compromise with Barnard and Columbia. Although I do have ODS accommodations, they only address half the problem: They have no impact on my meal plan and only allow me easy access to a kitchen in my dorm. Accommodations shouldn’t stop there. Individuals with food allergies should also be able to work with the school to choose the meal plan that best fits our individual dietary needs, and trust that our administration is working for the holistic wellness of its students in mind, not against it.
I came to Barnard with years of experience grocery shopping for myself and preparing my own safe food, and I knew this routine wasn’t going to change in college. Even though I intend to donate the swipes I don’t use, the requirement that I—and others like me—need to be on a large and expensive meal plan is completely counterintuitive; I don’t need 19 meals a week. We are able to provide food for ourselves, and we have been doing so for years. Therefore, it is time for the school to recognize that equity isn’t always about giving everyone the same thing. In this case, the most effective way for Barnard and Columbia to ensure fairness would be to take into account each student’s individual dietary needs and adjust accordingly.
The author is a first-year at Barnard College considering a double major in sociology and human rights. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like recommendations for the best top eight allergen-friendly foods (or with any and all questions/comments/concerns about this article)!