Dining with dietary restrictions leaves some students hungry for more

Photo+courtesy+of+Maddie+Sabin+24

Photo courtesy of Maddie Sabin ’24

Evelyn Kent, Contributing Writer

Cafe Mac, the only dining hall on campus, has a variety of options for students. This includes multiple stations with choices like pizza, pasta and burgers and a vegetarian or vegan station called “Plant Forward.” There is also a salad bar and a new station which offers even more vegetarian and vegan protein options, along with dairy-free milk and gluten-free bread. 

However, some students with allergies and dietary restrictions say they are not given sufficient options. Louise Yang ’25 said her experience with Macalester dining has been frustrating and even life threatening at times. 

“I’m vegetarian,” Yang said. “I’ve been vegetarian since sixth grade. I have severe peanut, tree nut and shellfish allergies to the point of anaphylaxis.” 

She sometimes has only one option available without tree nuts, meat or shellfish. 

“Everyday walking up [to a station] is a gamble,” Yang said. 

While Cafe Mac includes signs at each station with icons indicating gluten, vegan and vegetarian ingredients, students like Yang must rely on ingredient descriptions and ask student workers and chefs if the food contains anything that she is allergic to. 

“There was one time when I got dinner … and [I] went up to the vegetarian option,” Yang said. “And I [said], ‘are there nuts in this?’ And they went, ‘No.’ And then they went, ‘Actually, we don’t know.’ Then I was like, okay — I’ll gamble I guess because otherwise I’m not eating tonight.”

Accommodating a student body with diets ranging from gluten-free, vegan and halal, and allergies from dairy to tree nuts and shellfish is a challenge, especially in the Cafe Mac open air kitchen where cross contamination is inevitable. 

Amy Jackson, Cafe Mac general manager, said she is eager to work with students and accommodate needs, but that it can be difficult when serving hundreds of students. 

“We love to work with students on an individual basis and help them feel comfortable and hopefully … our station chefs … and our managers are accessible to answer questions,” Jackson said. “We know that that’s not always possible.” 

She emphasized that Bon Appétit, Macalester’s food provider, prides itself on small batch cooking with fresh ingredients, but she acknowledged that there is potential for cross contamination. Multiple dishes, which may contain allergens, are served at the same station and food may be cooked or prepared on the same equipment. Cafe Mac and other dining options use menu symbols indicating food that is gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian, but use descriptions to specify ingredients like tree nuts or dairy.

Bon Appetit has collaborated with Disability Services to establish a meal pre-order system in Cafe Mac to help students with dietary restrictions. The program allows for students with allergies and severe food intolerances to order their meals ahead of time. Students can set up a meeting with Disability Services to talk about their needs and brainstorm ideas and accommodations. 

“After we gather information … figuring out exactly what the students requests are … we put that together in a formal accommodation plan for the student and notify that to campus dining,”  Shayne Fettig-Hughes, case manager for Disability Services who helped create the program, said. 

The accommodation plan for students can include a tour of Cafe Mac with chefs, understanding ingredients of common foods and receiving food through the pre-order program. 

Maddie Sabin ’24, who has celiac disease and can’t eat anything with gluten, said that she’s had a positive experience with the pre-order program. She typically uses the program for dinner and relies on the gluten-free section for breakfast. The best part for her has been the relationships she has formed with the Bon Appétit staff who she coordinates with to receive her meals. 

“[The Bon Appétit staff] have continually done their best to make sure that it is good for me and I have gotten to know a bunch of lovely people through this service,” Sabin said. “They are always like ‘How was your day, I know you had an exam coming up’ and are honestly some of the kindest people I’ve met.”

Sabin said that staff members will even doodle on her pre-order box with motivating messages or drawings. Her biggest challenge so far has been primarily with the website when the meal for the next day isn’t always shown. Sabin also acknowledged that it can be intimidating to reach out and go through the process of receiving dietary accommodations.

“It really is about you having to take the first step to reach out, but they will meet you halfway once they know that there is a problem,” Sabin said.

Fettig-Hughes also offers students the option of using a business card with allergies and dietary requirements listed to communicate with cafeteria staff when it’s loud or crowded in Cafe Mac.

“I’d like to know feedback if anybody else wants that,” Fettig Hughes said. “I really want to know where the roadblocks are so that we can figure out solutions.”

She encourages students to ask questions, request ingredient lists and advocate for themselves. 

“It’s hard, especially with students that are navigating … on campus for the first time … so having to go and consult every meal with the chef at every meal … At a peak time, it can be very challenging,” Fettig-Hughes said. 

Fettig-Hughes said that while about 25 people are registered for the program not everyone uses it. 

While Eva Markham ’25, who has severe intolerance to dairy and gluten, is registered for the program, she has encountered challenges with it. 

“For me … I don’t really have the time or emotional energy to be thinking about what I want to eat for the … next day in order to send in that request … I know that [works] for people and so I definitely want to recognize that that is an option that’s provided, but the fact that that’s really the only real option doesn’t work so much for me,” Markham said.

By communicating with Jackson, she has toured Cafe Mac, and gained additional information about how the kitchen works and options like switching to the commuter plan.

Disability Services offers students with severe dietary restrictions or allergies the option to switch to the commuter meal plan which includes only 75 meals and 75 flex points per semester and allows students to spend that additional money on groceries and cooking for themselves in the dorms. Commuter plans are otherwise only available for students living off-campus. 

Markham says she is considering this option for spring semester, but worries about her ability to cook for herself. 

“[It’s] not you know, an easy thing to run down and make myself food … particularly in the midst of all the other expectations of being here and being a student,” she said.

Living in Dupre Hall, she only has access to one kitchen in the entire hall, which is located in the basement.

“The kitchen is not super accessible,” Markham said. “It feels like a better option than what I have right now.”

Like Yang, she struggles to find options in Cafe Mac. 

“Most of my meals I end up eating from the salad bar, the exact same combination of ingredients that I know, theoretically cannot have gluten or dairy, for example, lettuce and carrots and turkey,” she said. 

She too has had experience with incorrectly labeled items and chefs who are unsure of ingredients. 

In response to student requests this year, MCSG assembled an ad hoc committee to work with Cafe Mac to include more options for people with dietary restrictions and allergies. They focused specifically on increasing vegan and vegetarian options. 

Jackson said that the committee motivated the addition of a new station called “More Plants,” which is open for lunch and dinner and includes stewed chickpeas and rice and sometimes falafel and seitan. Bon Appétit has also included more vegetarian protein options at the salad bar and is working on creating a vegan menu item at The Grille. 

Additionally, a committee composed of students, staff and faculty called the Macalester Dining Advisory Committee (MDAC) brings concerns to Cafe Mac and Bon Appétit. 

“We get together on a monthly basis and just discuss dining, food concerns, suggestions … Some of those things that were being discussed with the ad hoc committee, and some of those students are also on the MDAC,” Jackson said. “So we definitely have some really good lines of communication.” 

Some students have found alternative meal options through cooking in the dorm kitchens. Audrey McGuinness ’24 lives in Dupre Hall and cooks dinner for herself and her neighbor multiple nights per week. 

“Cafe Mac, they really like to make everything greasy and dairy heavy,” McGuinness said. “I found that those are things that don’t make my body feel the best.”

“I have one meal where I feel nourished after and dinner is the most important one for me … I try to buy the cheapest ingredients,” she continued. “But I do need to figure out a better system for how to make it more affordable.”

While cooking facilities exist in every building, their function and accessibility is widely varied. For some students, this is not a plausible option due to financial barriers for buying equipment or time constraints.

“There is kind of an issue around essential kinds of materials for cooking being in the kitchen all the time,” McGuinness said. 

While some cooking equipment and utensils are available through the residence hall office, hours are limited, which restricts students’ access. McGuiness acknowledged that she is fortunate to be able to buy some of her own materials and ingredients, and that other Macalester students may not have the same resources she does. She is grateful she is able to make herself meals she can enjoy. 

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