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Sometimes it is Hard to be First - Update on our struggles with the University of Washington providing Safe Gluten Free Meals

As you may recall, we have been struggling with the University of Washington to provide safe gluten free meals for my daughter who has celiac disease and lives in a freshman dorm. 


As fully explained in my previous blog post, we followed all necessary steps to request an accommodation, met with the University Dining Staff on several occasions, and yet they completely failed at providing any sort of an accommodation.   In fact, in her first quarter of college my daughter had three meals provided by the University and was sick after two of them! 


At the time of my last post, the Dining and Housing Staff at UW had denied all of our requests including our final plea that my daughter’s meal plan be reduced, since they were not providing safe meals, and to change her triple room to a double when one roommate moved out.  Even though UW repeatedly slammed the door in our faces, we were persistent and have finally landed on a resolution.  Not ideal - they still are not going to provide safe meals.  But they have offered a few concessions.   


First I want to say that the support of the gluten free community following my last post was awesome.  Someone offered a spare dorm-sized refrigerator for my daughter to use.  Another person who lives near us and works at UW offered to help with delivery of meals.  Yet another couple that lives near my daughter’s dorm offered to store her meals in their refrigerator in their house and then deliver them to her when she needed them.  How cool is that! 


Following my last blog post, we decided it was time to move up the chain of command.  We emailed the Dean of Students hoping to get someone’s attention.  Not surprisingly, we once again received no response.


We found an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) attorney and were seriously contemplating filing a Department of Justice claim.  As I mentioned before, the retainer fee was $5000 so this was a big decision for us.   We decided to send one last email to the legal department at UW.  It helps that both parents are lawyers!  After some digging, we found the person in the legal department who overseas housing and food services.  We sent one more email indicating that this really was our last attempt at resolving this amicably and if we did not hear back we were proceeding with the DOJ.


We finally got their attention! Shortly after that email, we received a request for a meeting from the Director of Housing and Food Services at UW.


By this point in time, we were halfway through my daughter’s second quarter.  We traveled back to UW for yet another meeting.  I was actually nervous before this meeting.  Our previous requests had been so rudely denied that I thought we were just going in for more excuses.  And I knew they had read my blog post which was entirely factual but nevertheless portrayed UW Dining in a very negative light.


The University acknowledged they were wrong.


I am happy to report that this meeting was actually productive.  At the very outset the UW Director apologized for how poorly they treated my daughter and for their failure to provide safe gluten free meals.


They acknowledged that they were well aware of the Lesley decision but due to a variety of circumstances had not formulated a proposal as to how the UW should proceed.  The UW Director noted that providing safe gluten free meals is something that is being widely discussed at the collegiate level and that they need to implement a plan to accommodate students like my daughter.   


They assured us that since we brought this to their attention they were now working on a plan to provide safe gluten free meals for future students.  They discussed a few different options for creating a dedicated gluten free food prep/kitchen area.  But these plans will take time to implement. 


They offered a few Accommodations for my Daughter.


Unfortunately none of these plans will be in place in time to provide my daughter safe meals for her freshman year and after all she has been through, she is not willing to eat anything from the dining hall until they take the necessary steps to provide truly safe gluten free meals.  For my daughter, the best they could offer was to excuse the dining allowance from her meal plan.  It was good to see them take this step since they previously refused to do this, even though she is only using her meal plan to buy coffee and yogurt!   


Additionally, it turns out that her dorm has a small kitchen that is reserved for the Residents Assistants and very rarely used.  They gave my daughter a key to this kitchen.  They also provided an area in the kitchen for her to store some pots and pans and food.  Yes, it seems like they could have done this months ago, if only someone had told us about it!    


Finally, my daughter pointed out that there is only one microwave in the dining area where she can heat the GF meals I deliver to her.  Of course, the dining hall people placed the bagel cutter and toaster on top of the microwave.  (Yes, their absolute disregard for her situation is pretty appalling).  They agreed to separate these two areas.  


I guess this is as good as it gets for now.  I am still making her meals but have also purchased a few pots and pans so she can cook a few things for herself.  The school year is 2/3 over at this point anyway. 


Sometimes it is Hard being First


My daughter was happy to finally get an apology for how poorly UW dealt with her situation.   But she is understandably upset that she had to get so sick and go through all of this because of the University’s non-compliance with the ADA.  She was sick for much of her first quarter of college and they treated her very rudely.   And really the accommodation she is getting is minimal (I am still feeding her and they are not providing safe meals). 


If you are a mom, then you know your child’s pain is only a fraction of what the mom feels, so you can guess how hard this has been for me.  But I explained that sometimes it is hard to be first.  Just like it was hard to be some of the first people who were diagnosed with celiac and went gluten free, it is hard to be the first student to push for your rights against UW.  But the consolation is knowing that you made a difference; the University is very aware of the issue now and they are working to provide safe meals for future students with celiac.  And even though it is hard being first, sometimes knowing you made a difference is as good as it gets.   


Are you Considering UW in the Future?


If you have a student who is thinking about UW next year, I am honestly not sure they will have taken the necessary steps to provide safe meals by then.  You can rest assured that I will continue to follow up with them and they certainly need to take this seriously because they are “on-notice” now and the next student who is treated this way will have a very strong claim against them.


Getting Accommodations at other Colleges


I used to think that you should not let your diet limit your college choices.  We have continuously fought to live as much of a “normal” life as possible despite our dietary restrictions.  But after going through this, I may exert some influence on my other daughter to go to one of the gluten free friendly universities


If your student is already in college and you find yourself in a situation similar to our experience, be PERSISTENT.  You have certain rights under the ADA but institutions are good at saying “no” and hoping you will just go away.  But don’t give up! Document everything!  Continue working your way up the chain of command.  Be polite but keep pushing until you get some kind of workable accommodation.  And if all else fails, call me!  I will keep pushing for you!



Posted by Joy on
I am Celiac and my husband is a trustee for Samford University in Birmingham, AL.
They have all this in place and have been serving gluten free for years.
The gluten free meals they prepare for me at the meetings are absolutely delicious as well as totally prepared gluten free..
They even have an allergy free separate counter in the beautiful cafeteria. Having these foods separated and safe.
Just letting you add this wonderful university in the south to your list of safe universities for Celiac students!
Posted by Janice on
Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. We have a junior in high school, and she is just starting to look for colleges - this issue moved to the top of our list! Glad you were able to achieve at least a partial resolution with UW!
Posted by Jeanne on
I wish you and your daughter and the whole family my best. For those who are looking for a university that is truly welcoming and accommodating to food-allergic students, I recommend the University of Connecticut. (I know: it's a continent away for you folks!) Quick story: I'm celiac and have other food sensitivities as well. While I was at freshman orientation for my daughter, I attended a lunch put on for parents. Since we live just off-campus, I had planned to take my bike back home for lunch and then return for the afternoon activities. But, I thought, might as well check in, since my fee for the event covered my meal. I did my usual polite but assertive thing, explaining and asking at the meal line if there was any way they could feed me, and understanding if they couldn't. They were glad I'd asked! UCONN is very conscientious about this and provided me a delicious safe meal. They were sure to not do this quietly, which was a little embarrassing for me, but they obviously wanted to take the opportunity to let the parents in ear-shot know how accommodating they are. Well, a little embarrassment for me, if it helps some of the food-allergic students on campus know what's available, is worth it.
Posted by K Morgan on
I am so sorry you are dealing with this. Unfortunately you are not the first to encounter this sort of resistance on this issue. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) is launching a college food allergy pilot program and the training they are using includes celiac disease. I emailed everyone that I could at the UW about this last fall when FARE was looking for pilot schools and got no reply. I also invited them to a free Allertrain U training. I believe that at some point the UW did undertake some food allergen training but I have no idea if they kept it up. Have you considered filing with OCR?
Posted by Jana on
I approached the UW in 2004 when my son was a sophomore in high school. He always wanted to attend the UW and living in the dorm (which is where I met my husband) was also something he wanted. Despite communicating his life threatening food allergies for two years prior, they still would not accommodate him in the dining hall when he arrived Fall 2006. We, too had to pay the dining portion and he was supposed to use his meal plan dollars at the convenience store where due to multiple life threatening food allergies pretty much all he could purchase was pop. There was no way they were going to work with him like other colleges I researched and found (of which I sent UW plenty of links to other universities welcoming students with life-threatening food allergies) It took until spring quarter for them to agree that they wouldn't charge the meal portion and only charge him room. We provided our own mini fridge, mini freezer and convection/microwave so he could eat by himself in his dorm room while his friends enjoyed meals together as part of their dorm life experience.

Yes, I'm still bitter.

A few years later when he was living in an apartment off campus, they wrote and told me they were building something off campus that would have a self serve kitchen for student-use who were gluten free (and maybe one that would be peanut free). That still wouldn't have accommodated my son fully but it was a start. Too little too late for him, though.

Good luck in your endeavors.
Posted by LouAcrog on
Hello. And Bye.
Posted by Sheryl on
Gluten Free Friends is doing a Celiac College Student Survey to help improve the college experience for kids who need to eat strictly gluten free on campuses across the country. Please send this link to current or recently graduated celiac college students for their input:
(By the way, a link to this blog post is included in our Celiac Complicates the College Search article!)
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