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AN INDEPENDENT STUDENT NEWSPAPER SERVING THE GW COMMUNITY SINCE 1904

The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Limited ingredient labeling in dining halls poses risk to people with dietary restrictions: students

More+than+20+students+said+it+is+hard+to+tell+which+foods+contain+ingredients+like+shellfish%2C+gluten%2C+nuts+and+meat+because+officials+do+not+display+a+detailed+ingredient+list+for+each+menu+item.
File Photo by Chuckie Copeland | Staff Photographer
More than 20 students said it is hard to tell which foods contain ingredients like shellfish, gluten, nuts and meat because officials do not display a detailed ingredient list for each menu item.

Bianca Rose, a freshman and member of the rowing team with celiac disease, said dining hall food potentially cross-contaminated with gluten has made her sick to her stomach, causing her to miss practice one evening.

She said she still runs the risk of ingesting gluten-contaminated food prepared in the gluten-free station at Shenkman Hall labeled with a sign that reads “avoiding gluten,” despite lacking any supervisory staff. The counter is separate from Pure Eats, a station in Thurston and Shenkman halls’ dining halls that offers options without the nine most common food allergens including milk, eggs, nuts, fish, crustaceans, shellfish, wheat, soy and sesame.

She said she has seen students using waffle batter containing gluten in the waffle maker at the counter, contaminating the station and posing a “risk” to students who can’t eat gluten.

“It’s just terrible,” Rose said. “It affects my academics, it affects my athletics, it affects my mood. It’s my whole day that’s kind of ruined.”

Rose is one of more than 20 students with dietary restrictions, like food allergies, eating disorders and religious provisions, who said the labeling of food items in dining halls did not clearly correspond to each dish and did not disclose all its ingredients, causing students to risk ingesting food to which they are intolerant.

The University completed its transition to a dining hall-centric system earlier this semester, moving away from the previous model of dining where students had to spend declining GWorld balances at partnering restaurants and grocery stores.

Rose said she purchases food outside of dining halls because Pure Eats staff serve “repetitive” and “boring” options with the same chicken, beef and vegetable options each week. She said she wants to see officials add gluten-free options to the dessert section, where the dining halls currently only serve gluten-based options.

Officials will require all on-campus students to spend dining funds at District House, Shenkman and Thurston dining halls or The Eatery at Pelham Commons on the Mount Vernon Campus starting in the fall under any one of a series of unlimited or block meal swipe plans – which respectively offer students infinite balances of meal swipes and balances split between swipes and dining dollars.

The University will discontinue the legacy plan for upperclassmen, which allowed them to spend dining dollars at partnered vendors.

A disclaimer on the GW Dining website states dining hall staff attempt to provide complete nutrition and ingredient information but recommends guests with food allergies or other dietary concerns speak with a manager for “individualized” assistance.

“Products may change without our knowledge, and menu items are prepared in close proximity to other ingredients that may result in cross-contact with ingredients not listed, including allergens,” the website states.

University spokesperson Julia Metjian said the Pure Eats section of the dining halls in Thurston and Shenkman are “food-inclusive” areas that operate separately from the rest of the food facility. She said workers serving food at the Pure Eats stations do not work in other parts of the dining hall kitchen to avoid cross-contamination and receive training on food allergies and “safety.”

Metjian said officials will convert the Teaching Kitchen – where students learn cooking skills from dining professionals – in Shenkman Hall to a gluten-free station in response to student feedback. She declined to say whether officials have received complaints over unclear labeling of menu items or whether students with dietary restrictions would be able to secure exemptions to meal-swipe plans next fall.

“We seek feedback from our students so that our dining program continues to meet the needs of all students,” Metjian said in an email. “We have started a student advisory group and will continue to assess the dining program on a regular basis.”

Freshman Sai Charan Chodavarapu, who is allergic to eggs, tree nuts, avocados and peaches, said he visited GW Hospital twice after two separate allergic reactions to onion rings and a grilled cheese sandwich served in the Thurston dining hall in February.

Chodavarapu said he administered his EpiPen both times before checking himself into the hospital, where staff treated him for an anaphylactic reaction. He said the University failed to indicate if the onion rings and grilled cheese were exposed to eggs in the ingredient list posted by the Thurston Hall meal station, sparking the reaction.

“I’m scared to eat here every once in a while now just because it’s gotten really bad,” Chodavarapu said.

The listed menu item for onion rings on the GW Dining website describes the dish’s ingredients as “battered onion rings,” stating they are vegetarian and “may contain” eggs or dairy.

The dining facility in Thurston Hall opened last October, and the cafeteria in Shenkman Hall opened at the beginning of this spring semester.

Chodavarapu, a Hindu vegetarian, said earlier this semester, he accidentally ate macaroni and cheese with bits of pork mixed in because the label on the designated screen above the station did not specify the meal contained pork.

“You don’t really know what you’re eating until you bite into it,” Chodavarapu said.

Kyle Reinheimer, a freshman studying international affairs with tree nut and shellfish allergies, said trying to determine which meals are safe to consume at dining halls feels like a “shot in the dark” because ingredient lists posted on screens above menu items and online are not “comprehensive” and include only one or two main ingredients in dishes instead of all of them.

“I grabbed one of those desserts up there, and I was like, ‘Fingers crossed it didn’t have nuts in it,’” Reinheimer said.

One student recovering from an eating disorder, who asked to remain anonymous, said the prominent calorie labeling in food items on the screens at dining halls and online can trigger students trying to overcome a fixation on how many calories they consume.

“If you go on the website right now, calorie count there is also displayed very prominently and in the actual halls,” the student said. “And so for students who might be experiencing an eating disorder as I am, it’s difficult because that’s a triggering thing.”

Erika Filter contributed reporting.

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