The Carleton dining halls are a perennial conversation topic on campus: Where are people eating? When? Which dining hall are you going to, and which one is objectively superior?
These questions are discussed casually and frequently by much of the student body. For Carls with dietary restrictions, however, an additional question is at the forefront of their minds: What will I be able to eat in the dining halls today?
Anna Center ’25 is allergic to gluten. She estimates that, on an average day, she is able to eat “probably around 50 percent” of the dining hall food.
“That’s about average,” Center said. “Sometimes it dips—the salad bar is always an option, but of the hot food, sometimes there’s almost nothing.”
Center’s experience is not unique. Dietary restrictions are common among the student body—from vegetarian and vegan diets, to tree nut or gluten allergies, to gluten intolerances.
To address the many different dietary restrictions and food allergies students have, Bon Appétit—Carleton’s dining contractor—utilizes a variety of approaches.
“We call out allergens when naming an entree (for example, instead of calling something a Chicken Stir Fry, we will call it a Cashew Chicken Stir Fry),” wrote Dining Manager Katie McKenna. “At each station, we have an ingredient list for the items being served at each meal at that station. It highlights all allergens.” Both of Carleton’s dining halls—Burton and LDC—serve dishes that are vegetarian, vegan and free of added gluten regularly. Burton and LDC also include special stations designated as “gluten-free” and “nut-free.”
For some students, this approach works fairly well. Fiona Liberge ’25 is vegan and feels that the dining halls provide enough resources for her to create a balanced meal on most days.
“I can get all my nutrients, and I feel like protein is fine,” Liberge said. “There’s enough options. I wish it weren’t the same ones every time, but I think that the meat-eaters have the same problem.”
For those with more severe restrictions, however, creating a balanced meal can be harder. In particular, students with severe food allergies and restrictions face issues with cross contamination.
Sydney Bieber ’25 is one example. Bieber has celiac disease, which causes a severe immune response in the gut when she consumes gluten.
“Basically, the amount of gluten in a crumb is enough gluten to make me physically ill; but the amount of gluten that’s in someone’s hand after they’ve touched bread and then they touch something that I’m going to eat is probably enough to set off my immune response in my gut,” said Bieber.
According to information provided by Bon Appétit Carleton, the Carleton dining hall kitchens are not gluten-free. “We have flour in all of our kitchens. We do, however, make food without adding any gluten. We label these with a down arrow and the letter g (⊿g),” wrote McKenna.
Ruling out all food made in the kitchens due to cross-contamination fears, however, leaves gluten-free students with few options. Besides the salad bar, the Gluten-Free Station is meant to be a reliable source of food for students that have severe gluten intolerance. But these stations can have their own issues.
Bieber is comfortable using the gluten-free stations at LDC. “It’s far removed from everything, so I will eat bread from that table and use the condiments there,” Bieber said. The location of the Burton station, however, is concerning.
“The gluten-free station at Burton is too close to the nut-free station, and I’ve seen people go from the nut-free station with gluten bread to the gluten-free station,” she said. “Let’s just say you had gluten bread, and then you use the butter, and then you touch the knife to your bread and put it back in the butter, that butter is now completely contaminated and I cannot use it.”
Besides cross-contamination, lack of variety can be another issue at the dining halls. The ever-changing menu means that offerings for a specific dietary restriction can differ dramatically from day to day, and even those with mild intolerances can struggle on days when less is available that they can eat.
“There are days where there isn’t [enough in the dining halls to create a balanced meal], for some reason or another,” said Center. “That’s kind of what stands out to me.”
Bieber also struggles with creating balanced meals with enough protein, saying she ends up eating a lot of salads. “I have difficulty getting protein—I’ve had a lot of plain tofu, which isn’t magnificent,” Bieber said. “The chicken kind of alternates every other day…[between] say[ing] it’s gluten-free or not. That type of confusion makes me really uncomfortable. So it is a bit of a challenge to find enough protein and actually make a well rounded diet, but I’m also totally fine with eating salads. So I am never hungry.”
Overall, Bieber feels that the dining halls are a workable source of food for her but would be made better with a few changes. “I would prefer if they had some well-labeled [gluten-free] proteins—really the chicken [being consistently labeled],” Bieber said. “[I would also appreciate] if they labeled the stuff at the salad bar, because they don’t label any of the things in the salad bar—they just kind of say ‘salad bar’, and I would just appreciate some more labels on some of those.”