Hannah Saad | @hannah_saad21
Students can’t walk more than a few paces on campus without seeing a Bama Dining location, whether it’s a Starbucks, Chick-fil-A or dining hall. But despite the wide array of fast-food chains littered around campus, a wave of concern has begun to stir from a historically overlooked group of students – those who have to base their daily lives around dietary restrictions.
Few restaurants at The University of Alabama offer the same wide array of options and alternatives for those with food allergies, religious observations or gluten-free and dairy-free needs to be met. From calls asking the University to improve the overall quality of their food, to those asking for more vegan and vegetarian options, it is clear that there is a sizable population of students on campus who feel as though their needs are not being met.
Samuel Watson, a junior majoring in computer science, expressed his thoughts on the dining limitations that he faces as a student with religious observations to consider, as well as his own personal fitness goals.
“My [dietary restrictions] started a few years ago when I first started following Hinduism… I don’t eat red-meat, and I began following a low-sodium diet after realizing how much sodium was in the foods I was eating,” Watson said. “I rarely eat on campus nowadays… Whenever I do get the chance, I find it extremely difficult to find foods I feel comfortable eating, especially in the dining halls. There have been efforts to improve the options in Lakeside and Fresh Foods, but still I find it difficult whenever I visit these locations.”
Despite Watson’s wishes to see the school do more to accommodate student’s dietary needs, especially as they relate to religious observations, he understands that not everyone has the same dietary restrictions as he does.
After all, with tens of thousands of students to consider, it’s difficult to accommodate everyone all the time—but Watson feels like the overall quality and variety of food should improve, especially in the dining halls.
“So much of the food is processed, fried and full of sodium. I also feel like most of the food has an unusually high amount of preservatives,” Watson said. “There have been numerous instances where I have brought dining hall food home to my apartment, left it in the fridge for several weeks, and still the food is edible and visibly unchanged. Meat, dairy and eggs should not stay fresh for that long if they are fresh.”
Grace Dorsey, a junior majoring in biology, expressed similar dissatisfaction with her scarce options in the dining halls.
She said as a student with a vegan and gluten-free diet to consider, she often had to get creative with finding suitable foods. Still, she appreciated the small efforts already being made to accommodate more students.
“I definitely have to hodgepodge a few sides together to get a full meal, [but] they have improved significantly since last semester,” Dorsey said. “I appreciate the availability of soy milk, almond milk and the impossible burger as vegan alternatives.”
Despite the growing variety of food, especially at places like Fresh Foods, Grace said that there was still more that could be done.
“I believe they would benefit from being more creative with tofu and beans. These are great protein sources and can be used for such a wide variety of dishes,” she said. “Having them on the salad bar is a good start, students would be more inclined to try them if they were incorporated into a stir-fry, soup, grain bowl or tacos.”
In terms of the options and alternatives, Holly Grof, the dining services coordinator at the University and a registered dietitian nutritionist, said many students are unaware of the dietary accommodations that the dining halls offer. She emphasized that Bama Dining makes it a goal to create as many customizable items on the menu as possible.
“Bama Dining managers are constantly evaluating menus taking into account sales, number of servings served and student feedback,” Grof said. “Both Lakeside and Fresh Food Company actually offer a Greek and Caesar salad, and any toppings can be left off. Like croutons for someone that would like to eat gluten-free, or cheese for someone that would like to eat vegan.”
For students who have allergy-related concerns to consider, Grof outlined several extra measures and precautions that the Bama Dining teams take to keep students safe.
“[We do] Text Ahead ordering,” Grof said. “Orders texted ahead are prepared by a manager or key employee with an extra emphasis on minimizing cross-contact concerns.”
The kitchens in the dining halls even have separate areas with purple-coded cutting boards, knives and cooking utensils. These special tools are exclusively used to prepare allergen-free meals to prevent the cross-contact of dangerous allergens from one plate to another.
Grof also mentioned the Allergy Awareness Room at Lakeside, where students with severe food allergies can eat in safety without worrying about cross-contact. The room is regularly stocked with snacks geared towards students affected by the top-eight food allergens.
“The space [also] allows ample storage space and room to accommodate students with a variety of special dietary needs,” Grof said.
Two dining halls that offer copious amounts of vegetarian options are Fresh Food Company and Lakeside.
“The vegetarian station at Fresh Food Company has a vegetarian offering each day, many of which are vegan,” Groff said. Upon request, students may even order an Impossible Burger at the Vegetarian Station, as well as being able to order a baked sweet potato from the same station.
“Lakeside offers a vegan black bean burger daily available upon request at the Grill,” Groff said.
She added that “the Yoshoku station at Lakeside has a vegetable lo mein or stir fry daily that is generally vegan,” and “the comfort stations at both dining halls and/or Churrasco Grill at Lakeside offer a vegetable and starch option for virtually every meal.”
The staff at both locations are able to provide a component of any dish in a timely manner.
“Even if items are made a few at a time or in small batches, much of the assembly is in front of you and doesn’t require a long wait to assemble a portion without the animal ingredients,” Grof added.
In response to the growing dietary needs of the student body, Grof said that mobile ordering has been a great new tool in expanding customizable items for students.
“Mobile ordering is also an excellent tool to allow preparation times and to minimize the customers’ wait times,” Grof said. “Sometimes there is a struggle to offer a wider variety, but also keep items freshly prepared.”
With mobile ordering, students have the option to order plenty of fresh produce. Most locations offer Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower, all of which can be roasted or steamed upon request.
Vegans will be happy to know that there is a dairy- and meat-free black bean burger option. With the mobile ordering app, gluten-free students can order gluten-free burger buns and even pizza crust. Fresh Food Company has a grain bowl that is vegan and made without gluten, but also an option to add chicken for those who eat animal protein.
Mobile ordering is currently available at 13 locations on campus, including five locations that accept meal plans and nine locations that accept VIP meals.
There are anywhere from 100–400 members within each Greek organization, not all of whom eat meat, gluten or dairy. In addition, members are given the option to live in their organization’s house, which means that for most students, there is a dependency on snack kitchens to have a wide-variety of snacks and meals available. Unfortunately, opinions vary regarding the success of houses to include for all members.
Bethany Graham, a freshman majoring in psychology, has only praise for how her sorority handles dietary restrictions. Being gluten-free may pose a challenge for most students who rely on their sorority house for meals, but not for Graham.
“The kitchen staff always has meals ready and always has accommodations for me,” Graham said. “I never feel like I’m unable to eat at the house and I feel that they do a very good job at making sure every girl with dietary restrictions is comfortably fed.”
Communication with houses’ kitchen staff is essential when guaranteeing that all members, regardless of dietary restrictions, will be able to eat during all three meal times.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Racquel Marshall, a senior hospitality management major, moved out of her sorority house after only living there for one semester. One reason for this – the lack of food available for those with dietary restrictions.
“The kitchen staff [in my experience] did not care who had dietary restrictions,” she said. “They would point to a salad bar that was obviously not maintained to ServSafe requirements.”
This ultimately led Marshall to outsource for meals and create her own habits when it came to maintaining a plant-based diet.
“I know I speak for a lot of plant-based upperclassmen when I say that we really got used to being kicked to the curb,” Marshall said.
In addition to the lack of availability, Marshall expressed her feelings towards the nutritional quality of food that was available.
“I felt like every night [the house] had a red meat option and every morning there were Krispy Kreme doughnuts,” she added.
Despite the struggles of students with marginalized dietary needs, plenty of them had great recommendations, both on-campus and off. The restaurants and food trucks around campus that give students the ability to customize their orders seemed to be the most popular.
Two local restaurants that are accommodating to dietary needs are Pyro’s Fire Fresh Pizza and Ajian. Both restaurants take Dining Dollars.
Pyro’s provides both gluten free options and the ability for customers to choose their own toppings. This is beneficial for those following specific diets or religious observations.
“At Pyro’s, you can load up your pizza or salad with as many vegetables as possible,” Dorsey said.
When going to Ajian, the freedom to choose what goes into your roll is a positive when it comes to following dietary restrictions.
“The build-your-own-sushi is so good for plant-based people,” Marshall said.
Meanwhile, Watson gives popular smoothie shops like Smoothie King and Blenz two-thumbs up due to their wide variety of organic and sugar-free options.
“Smoothie King has so many no-added sugar options and makes it easy to customize smoothies,” he said. “They also use a lot of organic ingredients.”
Blenz allows for the customization of all smoothie and acai bowls, providing fresh and health ingredients that tailor to all dietary needs.
Grof encouraged all students to take advantage of options like the mobile ordering app, as well as the Special Diet Accomodation Form so that eating on campus can be made easier for students with dietary restrictions.