Villanova Must Do Better For Gluten-Intolerant Students


Natalie Zickel / Villanovan Photography

Virginia works in the south campus dining hall.

Leah Cardinale, Staff Writer

Students who are gluten-intolerant on campus are calling for reform after the Freshmen Leadership Communitas Dinner held on Sept. 7. The event celebrated the start of the academic year as a learning community with a gourmet buffet and a special guest speaker, but dinner proved disastrous for freshmen Karissa Shamah and Julianna Petrelli.  

  “I would characterize it as uneducated,” Shamah said. “It took us six people to find out what we could and could not eat.” 

  The dinner was supposed to be a change of pace from the regular dining hall food, but when the pair went to make their plate, they were told to eat salad.  

  “It was terrible,” Petrelli said. “A guy was telling us to eat pasta that was not gluten-free and when we asked another worker about it, they said ‘we don’t know, just eat salad. Six people told us all the wrong information and we didn’t know what we could eat, so we finally decided to find the Head of Dining Services and ask. The pasta wasn’t gluten-free.” 

  Both students have severe gluten intolerances, but for people with Celiac disease, these mistakes are potentially life-threatening. Mislabeling or not labeling gluten allergens altogether is common for dining halls on campus. 

  “In Spit, signs will say gluten-free, and when you ask, it’s not,” Petrelli said. “I get a ‘Thanks for catching that,’ but mislabeling is no joke. You aren’t the one experiencing the digestive discomfort.”  

  There are people in the dining halls willing to help, but according to Shamah, it is hit-or-miss.  

  “You’ll find opposites,” Shamah said. “Some people want to learn and help you and will bend over backwards to get you the food you need, whereas other people don’t want to help.” 

  As someone with a more common allergy to peanuts and tree-nuts, I sympathize with my friends. Unlike them, I don’t have to wait 30 extra minutes for my food to be made in the dining hall.  

  “If I want something like a sandwich or a wrap, I can’t get it when I am eating with other people because by the time my food comes out, everyone is done eating.” Petrelli said. “Online it only tells you if the food is vegan. You don’t know what they have that you can eat until you get there.”

“If you can’t eat anything, you need to order and wait which, makes it impossible to eat with others,” Shamah added. 

  Recently, Shamah visited a friend at Thomas Jefferson University, and the difference she felt when it came to dining was astounding.  

  “At Thomas Jefferson, someone stood at the allergy section and guided you,” Shamah said. “There was a gluten-free toaster labeled as gluten-free and someone was constantly sanitizing it, every sign is explicit and specific. I was more confident in what I could eat there for one night compared to the whole time I have been here. When I go into the dining hall, I don’t trust the signage or that people know what they are talking about when it comes to allergies.” 

There is hope, according to both students, that Dining Services becomes more educated and makes gluten-free food more accessible and appetizing, given the helpfulness of staff such as Gail Mitchell, Nutritionist for Villanova Dining Services.

  “Gail Mitchell is sweet and will walk you through everything, and I wish more people were like that, but when people like that aren’t in the dining hall, what do you do?” Petrelli said. 

“I think that they definitely try,” Shamah said. “I don’t think it’s a lost cause or that they don’t have a desire to please but I think, especially seeing other schools, that there is area for improvement.” 

  Dining Services needs to open a conversation about improving gluten-free dining for students like Shamah and Petrelli.  

  “They should be asking for more feedback from us,” Petrelli said. “They have their head and hearts at the right place. We just need a voice to provide input on choices they are currently and could be making.”

  A gluten-free club is in the process of being formed by sophomore Belle Wronko. The creation of the club will hopefully bring about change for the gluten-free community at Villanova.