A dining station in Lower Usdan displayed “gluten-free” labeling while listing and serving foods that contained gluten on Nov. 8 last semester. A student with celiac disease—an autoimmune disease in which the gluten protein causes harm to the small intestine—became ill.
The “gluten-free stir fry” station where the mislabeled foods were served is one of several changes to dining services made by Sodexo, Brandeis’ outsourced food service, in attempts to address the diversity of dietary restrictions present on a college campus. The Nov. 8 mislabeling is one of the many similar mistakes described to The Brandeis Hoot by students with dietary restrictions who often said improvements were visible, but shortcomings were repetitive.
“They’ve done a better job this year of having more options for people in my situation,” Anna Badalament ’21 told The Hoot. But since Badalament, who has celiac disease, ate from the mislabeled “gluten-free stir fry” station on Nov. 8, she said she hasn’t felt safe eating in any dining hall.
“When you see a station that has abundant signage suggesting that everything at it is gluten-free and says things like ‘all food prepared at this station is free of gluten,’ you tend to think you don’t have to read the very fine print,” Badalament said.
After her first bite of the Korean tacos being served at the station, Badalament said, she knew she had consumed gluten and, upon returning to the sign to see what she had eaten, she “discovered that every single item on the sign said that it contained gluten.”
Badalament said that she reported the sign to a dining manager “in a panic because I know that if I consume gluten, I will be sick for upwards of two weeks.”
Two days later, when Badalament went to Sherman for dinner, she says she consumed gluten due to a mislabeled sign again. “I was already incredibly sick, that was already the first real meal I’d eaten in days,” she said.
Badalament told The Hoot that in Sherman she chose not to eat from Simple Servings, the allergen and gluten-free station in the dining halls, where she usually eats because “Simple Servings is sometimes not what I’m feeling.” Instead, she said she chose to have taco meat from the regular part of the dining hall.
“I checked the sign, it said ‘contains soy and dairy,’” she said.
But, Badalament said, after eating, she had a “sinking feeling,” so she asked an employee to check if the taco meat contained gluten. After checking the recipe, the employee told her that it did but told her that she should have eaten at Simple Servings. Badalament told The Hoot that she thinks it’s problematic to label certain allergens but not all of them.
“I didn’t start feeling better for probably three weeks after that,” she said.
Since November, Sodexo has reviewed and updated their procedures for dining hall signage and food labeling, according to the general manager of Sodexo at Brandeis, Andy Allen. Jeff Hershberger, Director of University Services, told The Hoot that the last incident of mislabeling he was aware of was in November.
“If I could make one sweeping statement,” Allen told The Hoot, “I’ve been in college university dining now for 30 plus years, and the number of folks who have identified as having food allergies has really escalated in the last ten years, so the amount of time and energy and training that goes into making sure that we are as close to perfect as we possibly can, every day, for the safety of our students, is paramount.”
Anna Cass ’21, another student with celiac disease, told The Hoot that she has worked with local and regional Sodexo administrators as well as some Brandeis administrators, to inform them about the issues she and others with dietary restrictions have faced in the dining halls.
“There’s been gross mislabeling for an entire year,” she said, “I’d been promised multiple times ‘we have a new plan, we know it’s a problem, we will fix it.’”
Cass said that she feels more confident that Sodexo has a system in place for allergen labeling in the dining hall after their latest update in procedure but noted the string of mistakes and shortcomings leading up to the changes.
She told The Hoot that before choosing to come to Brandeis, she talked to dining services to make sure they could accomodate a celiac diet but struggled to find gluten-free options during her first days on campus during orientation.
She recounted mistakes in food labeling such as barley—one of the three grains containing gluten—being served in Simple Servings in fall of 2017. She noted several instances of dining hall mislabeling, including one which made her sick just before finals in fall 2018.
“It’s frustrating that I’ve spent over a year and a half of my time advocating for this very simple step one—which is to have things labeled correctly,” she said, “and how many people had to get sick for that to happen.”
Cass also explained that upon arriving to Brandeis campus in 2017, she noticed that “the people didn’t have the training that they were supposed to have, and if people don’t have the training that they’re supposed to have, then they don’t know the things that keep allergens out of the food that it shouldn’t be in.”
Allen estimated that as of a training in 2018, 33 percent of staff were allergen-certified under a program called AllerTrain. Only employees with AllerTrain certification can work at Simple Servings and prepare allergen free dishes, according to Allen.
He explained in detail to The Hoot the procedures for menu creation and labeling in the dining hall, which have been put in place since last November. According to Allen, all menus are created by the executive chef in each dining location and are then transferred to an electronic food management system. When the menus are created, the recipes for the dishes are taken out of a database and reviewed by Karen Jew, a registered dietitian with Sodexo, to ensure that all the recipes are up to date. If a substitution is used in the recipe, Allen said the substituted ingredient is labeled and brought to the executive chef to ensure that the substitution is possible.
Before each meal period, “the executive chef in charge of each location is responsible for recipe adherence to make sure that the cooks are following the recipes as they’ve been planned through this process,” Allen explained. The executive chef and the sous chef also have a production meeting before meals to ensure that all the recipes were followed and that there were no problems, mistakes or challenges.
The ingredients used in the dishes are also reviewed and a taste panel is conducted during this meeting. Following a final allergen check, the highest member of the management team present at the meeting, usually the executive chef, manager or the operating director, signs off on every sign posted in the dining hall. This happens for both the lunch and dinner services and menus.
The executive chef, operations director and manager in each dining hall are required to go through training to “make sure that they know how to properly manage allergens,” according to Allen. “If there are any challenges, we will pull the item from the line to make sure that the sign matches the product, matches the recipes, matches the purchasing spec. Once the meal is done, all of these premeal checklists are kept in a binder for audit purposes, and the process continues.”
For students with more severe allergies, both Sherman and Lower Usdan have My Zone, a “campus ‘pantry’ where food items needed by students with celiac disease or nut allergies are stored and prepared with precautions against cross-contact,” according to the Sodexo website. The website also stated the food in these areas are free of tree nut, peanut and gluten-containing ingredients and products.
My Zone in Lower Usdan is enclosed in a locked room that is available via swipe access, while in Sherman, it is the fridge located in the middle of the dining hall. The lock on the My Zone was installed at the start of Fall 2018 in order to provide increased protection from cross contamination, according to Allen, and, according to Cass, to prevent students without dietary restrictions from depleting the limited stock of foods meant for students with dietary restrictions.
Both Allen and Jew stated that it is more complicated to add similar swipe-access locks to the My Zone in Sherman due to the layout of the dining hall.
In an interview with The Hoot, Student Union President Hannah Brown ’19 told The Hoot she has a severe gluten allergy as well as allergies to a variety of other foods. Brown was the chair of the dining committee her first year at Brandeis when she joined the Student Union.
In her time as a student, Brown says she found it “quite difficult to adjust to eating at Brandeis.”
She said she lost 15 pounds her first semester at Brandeis, back in fall of 2015. “The food was much worse when I first came to Brandeis, in terms of quality,” said Brown. “The options for dietary restrictions were lower. I survived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
When she came to Brandeis, Brown chose not to register any of her allergies with the university. “I tried to manage it on my own, and still do,” she said. While she appreciates that students are advocating for people with food allergies, she said she did not want to be restricted because of her allergies. When she does come to the dining hall, Brown usually sticks to Simple Servings.
Brown said that while she appreciates that the My Zone room in Lower Usdan is locked to prevent people who do not have allergies from consuming the food, “it is difficult because you have to have a documented disability with the university to get in,” she told The Hoot. As a second semester senior, Brown said that she didn’t feel that it was worth the effort to register for access.
Students interested in obtaining access to My Zone need to fill out an application which can be found right outside of the room in Lower Usdan. The application requires that students state their documented medical/disability dietary needs which would require My Zone access. The Dining Services Team and Brandeis Dietary Needs Committee decide on a case-by-case basis if a student is granted access, according to the form.
With Sodexo as the only food supplier on campus, Cass believes they should be held accountable by the university. “Brandeis is capable of holding Sodexo accountable for a certain quality of service. Allergies lie in the details so if you are going to have a huge food production, where it falls apart is the details and unfortunately the life-threatening part is the details,” said Cass.
Hershberger also noted the administration’s role in accountability. “The administration’s role, really, is holding Sodexo accountable to their contract. So part of their providing services is holding an acceptable standard and really going above and beyond,” Herschberger told The Hoot in an interview.
He also talked about other possible improvements to the dining hall. He stated that a proposal for digital signage has been introduced into the budget process for the next fiscal year, though money has not yet been approved for the project. Starting with Sherman, Hershberger said he hopes to install monitors over all the food stations instead of the paper signage. “So let’s say we do make a mistake or where somebody on staff makes a mistake. Rather than having to take the sign down, reprint and bring it back out, they can simply go onto the software, make the change [and] it appears,” Hershberger told The Hoot.
According to Hershberger, if approved, this would be implemented in Sherman in Fall 2019, Lower Usdan in Fall 2020 and in Upper Usdan, Farber and The Stein in Fall 2021.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an individual with a disability is defined as someone who “has a physical or mental impairment that seriously limits one or more major life activities.” This is upheld both in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Allergies and some conditions such as celiac disease are considered a disability under the ADA according to the site. Universities which receive government funding like Brandeis are required to adhere to the ADA and make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities.
On campus, students with disabilities work with Student Accessibility Support (SAS) to assist with accomodations and “empower you to create opportunities for greater independence and self-advocacy,” according to their website.
Jew told The Hoot that the gluten-free stir fry station in Lower Usdan was created based on feedback by students with allergies.
Even with all the steps that Sodexo is taking to accomodate students, Cass said some students are still hesitant. “A trust has been broken and needs to be rebuilt,” Cass told The Hoot. “And I think Sodexo knows that.”
Badalament also hopes in the future that she will feel safe in a dining hall and not have to worry about what she’s eating. “I don’t want to have to worry what I’m eating will make me really sick and to not have to eat the same things every single day,” Badalament told The Hoot. “I want options that I can feel confident in eating. And feeling certain that if I asked someone on the staff about specific dishes, that they could feel certain the answer they gave me was correct.”
Cass said she has maintained a relationship with Sodexo since coming to Brandeis and will continue to advocate for students with allergies.