Special to Mustang News
Just like many other freshmen, computer science Sage Maxwell came to Cal Poly a year ago with a meal plan to spend. Unfortunately, Maxwell also had a list of 27 foods his doctor told him to avoid eating.
That means no Caprese french bread pizza. No burritos. No tuna or lobster. No cheese or milk. Not even coffee. The list goes on and on.
After two quarters of eating on campus, Maxwell found his meal plan almost useless. School officials tried to accommodate him, but nothing worked for his lifestyle. Eventually, he was able to get his meal plan revoked entirely.
Maxwell’s story may sound unusual, but food intolerances and allergies are not rare at Cal Poly. In fact, they are so common that the university has hired Megan Coats, a registered dietitian, to educate Campus Dining staff about the difference between allergies and intolerances and how to help a student find the right food to eat.
Coats said though researchers have not found a perfect explanation for why some people suddenly become intolerant to certain things, data shows that the number of people with allergies and intolerances is increasing.
There is a distinction between food allergies and food intolerances, Coats said. Allergies are when one’s body rejects a food item. It can sometimes result in anaphylaxis — a life-threatening condition. Food intolerances, which the majority of people have but mistake them for food allergies, are not as severe but can result in headaches, diarrhea, cramping, bloating, etc.
Coats said hormonal changes play a role in developing food intolerances. In many cases, this transition takes place after puberty.
Sometimes, when a student’s new eating habits (food choice and meal schedule) in college are so different from how he or she eats at home, food intolerances can also emerge, Coats said. Stress from school also contributes to the development of intolerances.
If a student feels like his or her body is not digesting some foods well, they should see a doctor to find out what intolerances they have.
“There are tests that can be done; they are not always accurate, though,” Coats said. “You kind of have to play with it yourself — especially if it’s an intolerance — to see, because there are different thresholds, too, for people.”
Not only working with students who have intolerances and allergies, Coats also helps those with severe food-related illnesses such as celiac disease.
“(Celiac disease) is not even an allergy and it’s not an intolerance,” Coats said. “It’s actually an autoimmune disease, so it’s a whole other ball game. Any kind of cross contact with grills or gloves, cutting boards, anything like that can cause a reaction to a person with celiac disease.”
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease occurs in genetically predisposed people, whose ingestion of gluten can damage the small intestine. The disease is estimated to affect one out of 100 people worldwide, and over two million Americans are undiagnosed and at risk.
Out of all the campus dining facilities, Metro is the only venue that has a gluten-free kitchen and window that assure no cross-contamination, Coats said. She advised students who have celiac disease to only eat at Metro.
She said out of the many California universities she knows, Cal Poly is a rare one that has a gluten-free kitchen that actually serves hot food to students.
Coats said students with intolerances, allergies and celiac disease are often good adaptors and are creative with their cooking, because it is part of their lifestyle to always be cautious and know what questions to ask when it comes to food.
Coats said Campus Dining does not revoke meal plans if a student has intolerances because the students can pick out the ingredients they can’t digest well, such as tomatoes or pineapples. Coats said a list of foods that contain allergens is also available on Campus Dining’s website.
A personal account
Food intolerances affect not only a patient’s eating habits, but almost every other aspect of their life.
Business administration senior Kim Payne recalled the time when she went out with her father and his girlfriend. They went to a specific pizza restaurant because Payne had done some research and learned this place had gluten-free food.
However, Payne couldn’t find on the menu any of the food advertised on the restaurant’s website. She told the waiter she’s gluten and dairy intolerant and asked if there was anything she could eat. He said no. It turned out that the menu advertised on the restaurant’s website only applied at certain locations.
Payne knows what pizza and ice cream taste like. She just can’t have them anymore. While most people are understanding, some occasionally say careless things such as “If I were you, I would die,” or “Oh, I wish you could eat this, it’s so delicious,” or “You should try this — oh wait, you can’t.”
This is what she often says to people: “I’m gluten and dairy-free, not by choice.”
In fact, many of her friends have food intolerances as well. Her roommate has a peanut allergy. One friend is intolerant to tropical fruits. One can’t have milk. Another had celiac disease. And her boyfriend is allergic to mangos and avocados.
Payne developed intolerance to gluten and dairy products when she first went to college. At that time, Campus Dining didn’t have any labels that explained the nutrition facts.
During her first year, Payne sent Campus Dining a complaint letter — originally an assignment for an English class — but never got a response.
“I feel like the responsibility of the school is to give everyone their best chance at their future,” she said, “And if someone doesn’t have the ability to go and eat dinner, that’s not bettering their future.”
On-campus food facilities are not the only venues that bother Payne.
In fact, even having Starbucks coffee is not easy. Her usual is Caffè Vanilla Frappuccino made with soy milk, but Starbucks employers frequently use the dairy blender to make Payne’s coffee and measure her soy milk with the same measuring cup they use for other customers.
But besides all those troubles, food intolerances also bring about one good byproduct: Payne has become more and more creative with cooking.
One time, Payne saw her friend having salmon on white rice with a lot of butter on top. She came home, bought salmon, put asparagus on top of it, wrapped the whole thing in tin foil, and baked it.
“And it was all because my friend got salmon,” she laughed. “And I couldn’t order it at the restaurant because they had something in their rice, too, that I couldn’t have. Just the whole dish was like, ‘Nope, can’t do it,’ so I went home and I made my own version of it.”
Payne is also interested in food science and said her intolerances made her switch from wanting to make normal food to allergy-friendly food. Her dream is to open a restaurant that specifically caters to people with food intolerances and allergies like her.
A revoked meal plan
For Maxwell, being intolerant of 27 food antigens got him in more trouble than he could ever anticipate.
He lost 10 pounds after the first quarter eating on campus, which led his mother to buy him even more meal credits, because she thought he just didn’t have enough food to eat.
Maxwell went through another quarter with few food options and even more meal credits to spend.
Although Campus Dining offered to have a chef at Metro prepare food for him every meal, Maxwell said he appreciated their offer but didn’t want to walk from Poly Canyon Village to Metro just to have broccoli and unseasoned fish every meal and then walk back.
He wanted his meal plan revoked. But he was refused.
“They were like, ‘No, there’s no way we can cancel your meal plan,’” he said. “I feel like I have extenuating circumstances that make it so that I should be allowed an exception or something like that … On that level, I was kind of failed by the dining system.”
Spring quarter, he became ill for lacking certain vitamins and not eating enough. He was advised by a health center nutritionist to talk with Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey during his forum about Campus Dining food services.
After the forum, Maxwell and Humphrey emailed back and forth and had a meeting. Maxwell sent Humphrey his list of 27 food antigens. The vice president made a phone call. A few days after, Maxwell’s meal plan was revoked.
“The part that frustrates me the most is if he has the power to tell somebody to cancel a meal plan and refund it within a few days, it’s not like it’s impossible to do,” Maxwell said. “And I can’t see why they couldn’t have done that. The people at the meal plan could have been like, ‘Oh we can’t do that, but we know somebody who can maybe do that.’”
Maxwell was not born with food intolerances. He became intolerant to many ingredients during high school. His doctor said his blood serum reacted to the following food antigens: alfalfa, almond, basil, kidney bean, navy bean, pinto bean, soybean, cherry, coffee, cranberry, egg, ginger, lobster, cow’s milk, oyster, pea, black and white pepper, cayenne pepper, pineapple, rye, tomato, tuna, vanilla, venison, wheat, baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast.
Maxwell said he doesn’t want to come off as being negative against Campus Dining because they tried their best to help him and he understands that their job was to work within the meal plans — not to revoke them.
When he talked to the vice president, Maxwell didn’t really expect his meal plan to be revoked, he said. All he hoped for was to open up new channels for students like him, because students don’t have that many hours to navigate around Campus Dining to find the right food to eat.
Correction note: A previous version of this article inaccurately reflected parts of Kim Payne’s story, including her experiences at Starbucks and the dinner with her father. It has been updated to reflect those changes.