Dietary Restrictions Need Not Apply: the New Dining Hall

Photo by Kelley Ware

Kelley Ware | Multimedia Coordinator

UNBC is two full semesters into the new UNBC Dining Hall, and the changes to food service delivery on campus have seen many students polarized. Some continue to lament the closing of the old Corner Store and the changes seen this year in food services, while others have expressed satisfaction. Either way, it appears that the new services are here to stay, with UNBC considering the new Dining Hall a success, both in numbers and food quality.

“From what we’ve seen, both from a student and community standpoint, it is doing really well. We are getting more drop-ins per day than we did with the prior dining hall, which means more revenue generation that goes back to the university,” said Nicole Neufeld, Business Development Officer of Ancillary Services. “From a student perspective, we have heard a lot of feedback that the food is better. So with our old provider the food quality wasn’t quite where we wanted it to be and that was just because the capital money that was going into it just wasn’t enough. With the higher demands we are able to put higher quality food out.”

However, numbers and quality notwithstanding (it is unclear if increased numbers is a result of increased food quality, or the mandatory meal plans for residence), there may still be significant issues with the Dining Hall when it comes to meeting the dietary needs of students. This may be a serious problem for a food provider that advertised its ability to meet the needs of all students.

Willie Lum, Director of Food Services, did not respond to attempts to request comment on how the Dining Hall was planning to accommodate students with special dietary needs; however, Neufeld did. In regards to accommodating student needs, she had this to say:

“We have a section in there that is a vegetarian section and a vegan section. So we have four vegan or vegetarian options a day. We also have the salad bar, which provides options for both. The biggest thing that we have been talking to students about is the My Pantry option. So with My Pantry there is the option to cook your own food based on whatever your dietary needs are. And because we have had some students with unique food allergies, we have actually worked it out with our head chef that if you have any specific dietary needs he can specifically order food in for you and hold it in the back. So instead of it being public food for everyone, you can have your own food stored in the back. That way you can just go in, tell them who you are, and they can give you your food and you can cook it yourself.”

Photo by Kelley Ware
Photo by Kelley Ware

However, the idea of accommodation and the reality may not be as close as some may think. Sue Rahimtula, a student in the Education Program came to Over the Edge to discuss some of the problems she has been dealing with. She came to UNBC from Surrey in September. Since she was new to Prince George and it was a very convenient option, she decided to live on residence and purchase the meal plan (at the time she had no idea that the meal plan was mandatory for students with less than 60 credit hours living in residence). She had also received a financial award from Food Services designed to help pay for housing and food costs. However, Rahimtula did not realize that her wheat allergy would mean a semester-long fight with Food Services.

“Three weeks in I’m going ‘okay, this is not working for me.’ And I tried to get off the meal plan and I discovered that in your housing you automatically sign a contract. I wasn’t aware of the small print… I don’t even have that contract,” Rahimtula told Over the Edge. “Nevertheless, I have a wheat allergy and I’m thinking ‘well, this [contract] shouldn’t matter, I should be able to get some help.’ So I tried to find out what the problem is with the cafeteria, if they are able to help me in any way. They basically say that I can’t take food out of the cafeteria, I can’t bring food inside, I can’t bring friends inside to the cafeteria [which] totally isolated me… And I’m getting sicker and sicker.”

Rahimtula began looking into Food Services and the rules surrounding the meal plan. She figured that, since there are kitchens in residence, she might be able to get refunded for the meal plan and cook her own food in her dorm. However, the exemption process was far from simple for her. Rahimtula told Over the Edge that she was in contact with Food Services discussing her health problems due to her dietary restrictions for nearly the entirety of the Fall Semester. She was not told until near the end of the semester that an exemption form existed for people with dietary health issues.

Over the winter break, Rahimtula went home to her family doctor to get a note regarding her wheat allergy. She said that the doctor’s note specifically said she should be cooking her own food in her own kitchen. With the doctor’s note, she filled out the exemption form and went through the process.

Neufeld explained the exemption process: ““We do have an exemption process. The biggest thing behind the exemption process is we are looking at whether or not it is a medical condition which leads to an exemption, or if it is a food preference. So that is our two big defining factors. The student fills out the exemption form, which has supporting documentation for a doctor’s note or things like that. Then an independent committee reviews it. So we have about four people on the committee from different areas of the university, so not just food, that get to look over it and decide based on that if they either have a meeting with the chef to see if we can meet the specific dietary needs, if they receive automatic exemption, or if they can receive partial exemption.”

For Rahimtula, the final result of the process was unsatisfactory. She only received partial exemption for the winter semester despite the doctor’s note. This partial exemption also did not come in the form of money like she had been hoping, but in the form of $900 worth of Dining Hall dining dollars. On top of that, her food-related award was taken away, since she was trying to opt out of the service.

Photo by Kelley Ware
Photo by Kelley Ware

“Now, I have my undergraduate degree,” said Rahimtula. “I’m 33 years of age. I’m not a child, I know how to cook. I obviously have a problem and I need some accommodations done. I need my money back and I’m not able to get it.”

Neufeld explained this decision based on the committee’s reasoning that the Dining Hall could accommodate Rahimtula’s needs for a certain percentage of the time, specifically due to the My Pantry option. “It was either no exemption or dining dollars,” Neufeld told Over the Edge.

“I’m getting frustrated because I feel like I am getting bullied; that my needs as a student are not being met,” said Rahimtula. “It’s kind of unfair that I am being treated this way. My wheat allergy has not been dealt with. I had a doctor’s note that I spent a lot of time getting… I don’t think they are taking into consideration that people have health problems and if the plan doesn’t accommodate them, [UNBC] should accommodate the student.”

While it is believed that My Pantry should be able to meet the needs of most students with sensitivities and allergies, the fear of cross-contamination is very real for these students. Graduate student Meghan Sterling, who has severe celiac disease, said that she was afraid to even enter the dining hall due to possible cross-contamination. “Avoiding gluten requires a level of exceptional vigilance, and any food preparation or storage area where items with wheat or gluten are made and served increases the risk that anything gluten free may be cross-contaminated,” Sterling said. “Additionally, many items that seem to be gluten free or safe are not. A lot of spice companies use flour on their lines, etc.”

The close proximity of cook stations is also a reason for concern, since somebody may be preparing food that another student is sensitive, allergic, or intolerant to inches from their food. However, the issue of cross-contamination is apparently not one that has been brought up with Neufeld. “From our side [the issue of My Pantry cross-contamination] has not been brought to our attention,” she said. “The biggest concerns we have had with the My Pantry is students who are not comfortable cooking. So what we have done with that is hosting Food Education classes where we teach students how to cook basic foods or more complex dishes. But more just getting them comfortable with that cooking atmosphere”

There are clearly some serious problems with the new Dining Hall on campus. One can hope that this is just one of the hurdles that UNBC Food Services have to jump while they are making the new transition. However, for students like Rahimtula that may offer little comfort.

“I’m not trying to be disrespectful or cause a problem or make [UNBC] look bad. I just think that maybe they are not aware of these certain things,” said Rahimtula. “And maybe other students need to be told that if you go on the meal plan that this happens. You need to make sure that if you have any allergies you don’t go on the plan and don’t stay [on campus].”