Students with dietary restrictions adapt to changing cafeteria options

Sean Lee, Staff Writer

“It’s hard to stop and make one specialty sandwich for one student when we’re concentrating on feeding 1,500 people, but we do it,” Head of FLIK Dining and Service Brenda Cohn said. “We do our best to accommodate those special needs in whatever manner we can.”

Community members with dietary restrictions must ensure that they are receiving meals that are in accordance with their needs for lunch, whether by coordinating with FLIK staff or bringing food from home.

Students should reach out for help if they are having trouble finding viable food options, Cohn said. “Only students who identify themselves to myself, who I then introduce to the executive chef, the chefs, and the staff so we can assist them, can we assist.” Students can also go through the nurse who helps introduce those with dietary restrictions to the FLIK staff to find a menu that suits their particular diet, Cohn said. “We will do everything that we can to make [students’] experience in the lunchroom delicious, nutritious, and safe.”

Sammy Blackman (12), a student with celiac disease, has trouble finding snacks or a meal to eat quickly, she said. “Eating a salad on the go isn’t as easy as maybe just holding a sandwich in your hand, chicken fingers, or grabbing a bowl of pasta — one takes more time, and you can’t really cut grilled chicken on the go.”

Last year, Blackman brought meals from home because she had difficulty finding satisfying things to eat during the school day. This year, however, she no longer brings food from home because the cafeteria offers a wider array of food options, she said.

Sophie Gordon (12), a vegetarian, also found it difficult to find meals that did not contain meat during the pandemic when cafeteria options were limited, she said. “Once the pandemic hit, especially last year, it became a lot more difficult because there were more limited options in the cafeteria, and the majority of them had meat in them because that’s what the majority of the student body consumes.” The cafeteria has returned for the most part to its pre-COVID state with the reintroduction of the salad bar, the deli, and other non-packaged food items that were missing last year, Cohn said. At each lunch station, students with dietary restrictions have several options to fit their dietary needs.

The cafeteria is also able to accommodate dietary restrictions more easily, she said. While the cafeteria tries to avoid nut-based ingredients in recipes and sometimes replaces flour with cornstarch in sauces to accommodate gluten-free students, the staff does not avoid any other ingredients in the Middle and Upper Divisions, Cohn said. “At the Middle and Upper school, you really are old enough to be asking the questions about any ingredients you might be allergic to.”

Cohn encourages students to avoid foods whose ingredients they are unsure of. All staff members are trained and reminded during daily morning meetings to ask the chef whenever students have questions about ingredients, she said. For instance, Cohn was unsure of whether a shipment of cookies for this year’s dessert station came from a nut-free facility and instead encouraged students with a nut-free diet to get a fruit cup or have a slushy as a replacement, she said. “We have our famous phrase: when in doubt, do without.”

Students with allergies and restrictions should also be wary of using the salad bar and other self-service stations, Cohn said. “We advise students to never eat from a self-serve type of service because the opportunity for cross-contamination is great,” she said. “We prefer that they come to us, where we get their food from segregated areas in the kitchen to ensure that they’re eating safely.”

Gordon found that the return of the salad bar helped her find nutritious meals that she also enjoyed eating, she said.

As a lactose-intolerant student, Lexi Schwartz (11) has found that it is easy to avoid dairy products and other foods that could affect her dietary restriction, she said. “I’ve been dealing with being lactose intolerant for a while, so I kind of know what’s going to affect me, and I feel like the school makes it easy to eat things,” she said. “If I want pasta or a sandwich, I just won’t get cheese on it, so it can definitely be easily avoided.”

Dalia Pustilnik (12), who has avoided eating pork from a young age for religious and personal reasons, also finds it easy to avoid pork-based lunches and snacks that may contain gelatin, she said. “Because there are so many options, even when the hot lunch option is pork-based, there are so many other foods that I don’t really feel like I am ever restricted because of that.”

Although Lawson Wright (11), who, like Blackman, has celiac disease, feels that students with dietary restrictions have less options, he does not find it difficult to find options for lunch, he said. “There are less options, just because some days they may have offerings that aren’t within your dietary restrictions, but you can definitely find something to eat, and even then, there’s still a lot of options to have a nutritious lunch.”

Ria Chowdhry (12) believes that while the cafeteria does a good job of providing vegetarian options for students, an array of vegetarian sandwiches and paninis throughout the week would be convenient, she said.

Blackman would appreciate quicker options that fit into her dietary restrictions. “Any sort of gluten-free snacks and premade salads that are more grab-and-go would be helpful,” she said.

Having a wider variety of options in the cafeteria has positive effects on students who can find meals that fit within the limits of their dietary restriction, School Nurse DeAnna Cooper said. “Students have had a good experience and have gained confidence in choosing foods specific to their dietary requirements,” she said.