Students with Dietary Restrictions Reflect on DineSlu Experience

With twenty different places for students to eat across campus and six separate meal plans, DineSLU residential and retail locations are committed to serving thousands of students every day.  Students with food allergies or dietary restrictions are welcomed as part of that population. The feedback from students with dietary needs is a valuable way to assess and improve an essential part of the experience at SLU.  

Lia Basden, a sophomore communications student, shared her thoughts on DineSLU and eating with dietary restrictions. “My junior year of high school I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease in which your body can’t digest gluten,” said Basden. Basden is also lactose intolerant and vegetarian and said that the reputation of the dietary accommodations at SLU was a major part of her college decision. Basden struggled to find dining options last year and explained that the Simple Servings station was often the only place she was able to eat, due to cross-contamination and allergens. “They didn’t even serve breakfast at Simple Servings. Last year I was all on my own for breakfast, and I was paying for an unlimited meal plan but I can only use two swipes a day.” 

Basden said she would have also liked to see more vegetarian options, especially protein-rich vegetables. Sophomore Drew Gibson, who has Crohn’s disease, echoed the sentiment. “DineSLU has a lot of options for students and makes sure students have enough options each day. However, they don’t always have the best options for those with dietary restrictions or don’t give enough food, which makes it tough on certain students.” Gibson said that while he feels DineSLU service is always exceptional, delivering consistent options for these students should be a priority. 

 Another area for potential improvement was flexibility with meal plans and disability accommodations for residential students, as Basden said it took multiple tries to get accommodation without an apartment. “I think the most frustrating part is the fact that these other colleges would have been worse. And I know, again, part of it was COVID because when I met with the dietician before [the pandemic] she showed me the dining hall they had all kinds of prepackaged gluten-free meals. The most important part is that I never got sick from the food, so obviously they do a good job training the workers and it was safe. However, I always felt like it could’ve been better.”   

DineSLU Director of Operations Myron Bridges has supervised collegiate dining in nine separate universities across five states and said that his experience of nearly two decades in the industry has given him perspective. “As time evolves, the allergies become more complex. So you can’t just say a person with a gluten-free allergy or gluten-free need is in the same basket with everyone” Bridges said. DineSLU has been steadily increasing the variety and availability of its offerings, with the goal of communicating with students and prioritizing safety measures. DineSLU has a wide range of allergen-free foods and employs stringent food delivery, meal preparation, and utensil cleaning measures to avoid cross-contamination.  “We build meals before they even touch population in a secluded area in the kitchen, so it’s not over where everybody’s cooking everything else,” Bridges said. “Everything is color-coded as a measure because we’ve got thousands of people going through daily.” Currently, DineSlu is working to increase vegan and vegetarian options by loading plant-based foods into retail locations. 

Bridges said that the DineSLU team is actively working on establishing relationships and lines of communication with students who have dietary needs. An important part of the process for these students is meeting with the dietician Donna Foy and himself to create custom meal planning. Meeting with parents and students gives DineSLU the ability to make meals on request weekly for students with dietary needs or food allergies. DineSLU offers flexible weekly schedules for these students to pick up meals in between classes. Bridges often shops for the ingredients himself, buying groceries or ordering foods to fit any food allergy or dietary restriction. “When I’m in the dining hall, I want to feel like I’m at home. We probably have about 14 students, who all have menus built and we build the meanings for them” Bridges said. “We have a couple of students that will text me and give me a list of things for dinner and then our culinary team puts it together for them to pick it up at the Simple Servings counter.” 

COVID-19 was an added challenge to serving students with dietary restrictions. DineSLU’s supply chain and staffing requirements were put to the test during the height of the pandemic. Bridges said multi-state shipments and acquiring delivery drivers were difficult at times, but these were tests DineSLU was determined to overcome – particularly when it concerned students with dietary needs. “One of the last things I want is for dining services to be a negative experience as a part of the college experience,” Bridges said. “I want students to feel free to reach out by text, in person, or virtually. We’re happy to meet and make sure that we’re aiding and assisting our students.”