Section: Opinion

On leaving the meal plan: AVI failed to accommodate allergies

About a week after Orientation, I had an allergic reaction to a Peirce dish marked “dairy-free,” that evidently contained dairy. I was told by Kenyon administrators that I could go off the meal plan and prepare my own food if managing my allergies at Peirce became too hard. After spending a Friday night wheezing in my dorm room (and a Saturday morning discovering that the McBride kitchen has nothing to cook with), the offer sounded tempting, but I had only been here for a few weeks. I could guarantee my safety by going off the meal plan, but would have struggled to make friends if the largest social outlet on campus was inaccessible to me.

So, instead, I took the risk and decided to continue eating at Peirce. Sometimes it was great — Kung Pao tofu! Silk yogurt! Tostadas! — but I was often faced with severely limited options. It was disheartening to look at the menu outside the servery and see that my only dairy-free options were rice and the vegetable side dish.

In my time at Kenyon, I’ve had two reactions to Peirce food that sent me to the hospital— one due to cross-contamination at the salad bar and one due to “vegan pesto” that wasn’t so vegan after all. Having an allergic reaction is terrifying enough as it is, but having one 500 miles away from your family is even worse. It’s hard to feel comfortable in a space that made you sick, no matter how much you’re assured it will never happen again.

While I was abroad for a year, I had to cook all my own meals — an experience that was rewarding, yes, but I was looking forward to having someone else do the cooking while I would be working on my comprehensive exercise this year. After just a few days back on campus, it was becoming clear that AVI’s allergy practices had not improved in my absence. If anything, they had gotten worse. After a long month of messy salad bars, bread with no ingredient labels, having to explain what dairy was to Peirce employees and being assured that allergen training for staff “was coming,” I decided to go off the meal plan this semester and make my own food. It was a disappointing choice to make, but my safety matters more than hash brown triangles.

Collegiate bureaucracy is frustrating no matter where you are, but I had become all too familiar with AVI’s cycle: a promise that things would be different this year, a slight improvement and then a slip back into the usual. The high staff turnover is only part of the problem. When “creativity” is prioritized over student safety and allergen training doesn’t occur until after employees have been on the floor for months, everyone suffers. While going off the meal plan can be a solution for some, it should never be the first suggestion, as it was for me when I was a first year. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with food allergies must be accommodated, and at a school where the dining hall is so integral to student life, “reasonable accommodations” must be more than promises.

Deirdre Sheridan ’17 is an English major from Fanwood, N.J. Contact her at sheridand@kenyon.edu.

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