Smith College is Among First in the Nation to Offer Students with Celiac Disease a Dining Plan to Stay Healthy

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 31, 2016, by Lisa Spear

The smoked salmon is homemade, and the chicken tenders are breaded and baked, not fried. After taking a bite of the slow-roasted pork sandwich or a fudgey brownie, you would never know that they, along with all the food in the Dawes dining hall at Smith College, is gluten-free.

Despite this limitation, there is no dish that the cooks at Dawes House can’t make for students at Smith, one of the first colleges in the country to recognize that avoiding gluten is the difference for many people between illness and good health.

“There is a much better understanding of what it means to be gluten-free now,” said Smith sophomore Hannah Elbaum. “It’s not a fad diet, it’s not just for fun.”

People with celiac disease, an autoimmune illness characterized by an intolerance to gluten, know this all too well.

Since gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, ingredients in many of the ordinary foods people often take for granted, a gluten-free diet can be hard to stick to.

In those with the disease this protein triggers an immune reaction that causes inflammation in the intestines. Over time, the tiny finger-like tentacles that line the intestinal walls, called villi, which are normally responsible for absorbing nutrients, become atrophied and are worn away. This often causes malnutrition, leading to a myriad of health problems, said Barry Hirsch, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Baystate Regional Medical Center in Springfield.

The condition can leave celiac suffers with poorly mineralized bones, anemia and exhaustion.

One in every 130 people throughout the country has this autoimmune disease, but many go years without getting tested, said Hirsch.

For college students, having to avoid gluten can have a harsh impact on their social lives.

“If I didn’t need to be gluten-free, in a heart beat, I would want to be going out for beer and ordering Dominos pizza at midnight,” said Ashley Rohall, a Smith College junior.

“A lot of people don’t realize, I’m going to be gluten-free for the rest of my life.”

The College Responds

Smith agreed to convert one of its buildings, formally a kosher kitchen, to a gluten-free dining hall last year after a few students who were getting sick on cross-contaminated campus food petitioned the administration.

In order to eat at Dawes, students must get approval through the school’s office of disability services. They must present doctors’ notes that prove their diagnosis of celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten.

“We wanted something small and simple and just for us,” said Rohall. “I am very thankful.”

Rohall is sensitive to gluten and foods that contain it would leave her waking up in the morning with migraines.

She says she eliminated gluten from her diet seven years ago, and within a few days felt better. “It drains your energy. You could see it in my eyes. I was exhausted.”

Before the new dining hall opened, she lived mostly on gluten-free bagels and peanut butter at Smith.

“My meals would be so small it was kind of a nightmare,” she said. “When it opened, there was this moment of relief. It was glorious.”

No More Stomachaches

Most of the students who worked with the administration to get Dawes up and running have since graduated, but the number of students who need its services has grown from just eight to at least 40, according to Lisa Seymour, one of the Dawes chefs.

While gluten-free food is typically more expensive to produce, there is no difference in the price of the school’s meal plan for students eating only at Dawes.

Rohall, a psychology and pre-nursing major, was one of a dozen students eating at Dawes on a recent afternoon. The dining hall is located in a small, yellow house near Elm Street. The high ceilinged-space, filled with rows of narrow tables, is bathed in natural light from the large windows.

Some students were munching on chocolate cake, while others were digging into mountains of rice topped with beans. Those interviewed said the stomachaches and fatigue that came after eating in other dining halls have disappeared since they began dining at Dawes.

The two chefs who run Dawes’ kitchen, Seymour and Scott Rubeck, work hard to make sure the food is just as appetizing as the offerings in the other dining halls. Almost everything is made from scratch, even the steak sauce.

They prepare two meals per day — lunch and dinner — but since there is also a kitchenette that is open 24 hours every day with a fully stocked refrigerator, students can stop in for a midnight snack or simply cook themselves breakfast.

The space at Dawes not only works to keep students with celiac disease and gluten intolerance healthy, it also serves as a place where the cooks can experiment with new recipes to make gluten-free food, like the homemade apple Sriracha salad dressing, said Andy Cox, the director of dining services.

“I think there are things that you can do here that you can’t do in any other kitchens,” he said, because the cooks here have the time and resources.

With pork belly from a nearby farm in Vermont, they cure and smoke their own bacon. The roasted butternut squash that is served some days for lunch, like all the vegetables, comes from local farms.

Sometimes Rubeck and Seymour offer a Cuban sandwich with slow-cooked pork. Curried lamb or lamb in red wine sauce is a typical dinner. Macaroni and cheese is another favorite.

“The food here is always so fresh and so good,” said Smith senior Josie Brown.

She was diagnosed with a sensitivity to gluten years before she arrived at Smith and changed her diet then.

“When I found out, it was a real blow,” she said.

The gluten in foods, like bread, that she once loved, left her with cramps and bloating. “It affects your whole body.”

When the dining hall opened at Smith, she was thrilled.

“This just makes my life so much easier. Finally, we are getting the help we need.”

Attuned to Their Diners

While Smith is among just a few colleges to formally consider celiac disease a disability, others are coming around. After a group of students at Lesley University in Boston filed a complaint alleging that the college violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing gluten-free options in their meal plans, more colleges are looking at how to accommodate those with celiac, said Cox, the director of dining services.

“We have been steadily growing here,” he said.

But there is a limit to that growth: The college has no plans to open Dawes up to the general campus population, he said. Keeping it small allows the college to maintain control over the space and prevent cross-contamination from outside food.

The chefs say they have seen how easy access to gluten-free food has improved the students’ lives.

“They were actually experiencing college for the first time because they were more focused on their studies and they were feeling well,” Seymour said. “They weren’t worried about where their food was coming from.”

She knows most of the students by name and knows what additional allergies they may have. Some are also lactose intolerant or react badly to nuts.

A Clean Sweep

Sophomore Harriet Holmes, said she was so sick because of her celiac disease that she missed most of her first year in high school. A biopsy revealed that her intestines were damaged.

Aside from the typical illnesses that come with poor digestion, including weight loss, she suffered from anxiety.

“I was always really tired and I would sleep a lot,” she said. “A lot of people get brain fog. You are not functioning right.”

After she stopped eating gluten, it took months for her to feel healthy again.

“If you look back at my growth chart, I didn’t grow for two years,” she said.

For some people, the tiniest amount of gluten can give them intestinal distress.

“Someone who has celiac should not eat anywhere where they make pizza because the flour gets in the air and can be ingested,” said Hirsch, the pediatric gastroenterologist.

Since gluten often crops up in unexpected places, it can be hard to avoid. It’s often in ketchup, in hotdogs and even communion wafers, he said.

Gluten is not typically listed on food labels as an ingredient, so those with the disease have to know which foods contain the protein.

For those at Dawes, that worry is eliminated.

No food from outside is allowed in. All the pots and pans have been tested for gluten. The staff even made sure that the walls are made from gluten-free materials.

“I am very thankful,” said Rohall, one of the students who petitioned the administration. “We are spoiled to say the least, but we worked hard for this.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at