Slippery Rock University provides many ways to accommodate its students. For example, if you have a learning disability, you can get testing accommodations through Disability Services. If you test positive for COVID-19, the health center will provide you with a note excusing you from classes.
However, Rock Dining, our campus dining provider, was admittedly lacking in this regard. I suffer from Irritable Bowel Disease, or IBD for short. Eating certain foods will not just make me uncomfortable but can also cause organ damage and land me in the emergency room.
As an individual struggling with chronic illness, I have plenty of dietary restrictions that can be quite difficult to work around. However, as a student attending SRU registered through Disability Services for dining accommodations, I felt that not just me but all students struggling with allergies should be able to be accommodated at the same level as other disabilities on campus. To me, it was a significant issue that urgently needed to be addressed.
A peer who also suffers from inadequate dining accommodations on campus and I brought our concerns to Wendy Leitera, the executive advisor of SRSGA (Slippery Rock Student Government Association). Wendy quickly realized the severity of the situation and empowered us to make a change.
With her help, we connected with Christopher Cole, the Vice President of Auxiliary Operations and Student Services. We arranged a meeting to address our concerns with individuals who could help us make Rock Dining more accommodating. Also involved in this meeting were Lisa Rodgers, the General Manager of Aramark here at SRU, and Nicole Dann-Payne, the dietician contracted to our university.
On August 31, we were finally able to meet, and I ran the meeting with three main topics in mind: the variety of allergen-friendly offerings, staff training and awareness on allergen procedures, and financial inequities present between allergen-affected and allergen-non-affected individuals.
I spoke on many of the issues I had personally faced while dining on campus such as not being able to eat breakfast anywhere on campus due to a lack of gluten-free breakfast options, witnessing Rock Dining staff cross-contaminating my meals despite being informed of an allergy, and how I ran through my flex so much quicker than the average student due to the meal exchange offerings often being inaccessible.
I also contributed information that I had heard from my friends and peers such as Rock Dining employees not being aware that shellfish should be kept separate from other foods despite shellfish being a quite common allergy.
Thankfully, the three individuals I met with that day were very receptive to what I had to say. A key point we all came to realize was that it is incredibly difficult to understand the needs of a certain population if you are not a member of that population. Many things were, frankly, a shock to them.
Despite their best intentions to be accommodating to students with allergies, there was the realization that there were flaws due to a lack of understanding of both the severity and individualized needs of dining on campus with a dietary disability.
Many remarkable things, at least in my opinion, came out of this opportunity. Several new additions to Rock Dining are either already being implemented or are in consideration for implementation.
They have now installed signs at food locations that offer allergen-friendly options so that students will be aware of what they can access through Rock Dining. They also reviewed the importance of avoiding cross-contamination with allergen-friendly food items at certain locations and with staff members who were seen to be lacking in these procedures.
Finally, some future things being considered for implementation include an increased variety of food offerings particularly concerning Boozel Dining Hall, increased focus on cross-contamination/allergen training for Rock Dining staff and even an alternative meal-exchange menu specifically for individuals with common allergies.
I am so glad I got the chance to make the changes I saw needed to happen here on campus, not just for me but for everybody who has ever struggled to eat here. Rock Dining should be for all, regardless of what is needed to get it there.