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The University of Washington Gets an F at Accommodating our College Student on her Gluten Free Diet

As some of you know, my daughter who has Celiac Disease is a freshman at the University of Washington.  I have posted some updates about her eating gluten free at college on Facebook and appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received.   Here is the full story.   It is rather long, but the bottom line is that the University of Washington gets an F for failing to accommodate my daughter’s gluten free diet.


Here’s a quick overview, but please read on:


  • We followed all steps necessary to request an accommodation, met with UW officials on several occasions, and even offered to pay for training on GF food preparation and avoiding cross-contamination. 


  • They plain and simply failed to provide safe meals.  She ate three meals in the dining hall and was sick after two of them.


  • We went to Plan B, preparing her own meals.  We requested her dorm be converted from a triple occupancy to a double when one of her roommates moved out so she would have a little more room to store supplies, and that she also receive a credit on her meal plan as she would not be eating in the dining hall.


  • They denied both requests, suggested she move out of the dorms, and refused to credit her dining account. 



My daughter, Alex, is biopsy-confirmed with celiac disease and has been gluten free for almost 10 years.  When thinking about college, she wanted the real “freshman” experience of living in the dorms.   She is excited to live on her own, make new friends and figure out how to take care of herself.   She is living in a triple room at the University of Washington which gives her very little living space and only 1/3 of a 2.2 cubic ft. refrigerator to store food.  She is pretty happy with yogurt for breakfast and has a Panini maker so she can make herself sandwiches for lunch, but she was hoping that the University Dining Hall could at least provide an occasional warm meal for dinner.



Her panini maker - essential for the gluten free college students because the dorms don't allow toasters.


Request for Accommodation under the ADA


Celiac disease is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As a result, places that serve food must honor requests for accommodations by people with celiac disease.  We followed all of the steps necessary to request an accommodation under the ADA for her celiac disease.  My daughter is extremely sensitive to gluten and needs a diet that is not only made with gluten free ingredients but is also free from cross-contamination. 


Over the summer, we met with the University to plan how to prepare her safe meals.    The first meeting was a total waste of time.  Alex had not been assigned a dorm hall yet, so we did not know what dining hall would be providing her meals.  They told us to prepare a list of food that Alex likes to eat and come back after dorms were assigned. 


Their First Attempt at Providing a Safe Meal


We had a second meeting about a month before classes began.  The second meeting was more productive, but I was still very nervous about their ability to provide safe meals.    I provided them with very detailed directions on how to prepare a GF meal safe from cross-contamination. 


During this meeting they asked us what exactly “20 ppm” was, the standard that has been adopted by some as the maximum amount of gluten someone with celiac disease can be exposed to.  This is the standard adopted by the FDA for labeling manufactured food gluten free.  In a comment, the FDA noted that: 


The gluten-free final rule applies to packaged foods, which may be sold in some retail and food-service establishments such as some carry-out restaurants. However, given the public health significance of “gluten-free” labeling, FDA says that restaurants making a gluten-free claim on their menus should be consistent with FDA’s definition.


The UW Dining Chefs confirmed that even though they had some meals labeled gluten free, they could not guarantee that they meet this standard and would not be considered safe for Alex. 


At that meeting, it was decided that Alex should text the Head Chef when she wanted a meal and this person would supervise the preparation of her meal.  As you can imagine, my daughter was not too happy about having to warn them when she was coming to eat.  She was trying to figure out life on her own and with her new group of friends, and college students don’t necessarily plan when they are going to go eat.  But this was the accommodation they offered so she accepted it.   


Immediately following the meeting, I sent an email confirming what was discussed and the steps Alex had to follow to request a GF meal.  No one responded to my email.


I sent a second email the week before school started and received some information that was different from what we discussed in our meeting.  But it did state that “We will always offer GF pasta at the pasta bar. We will cook the pasta in a completely separate vessel, store it away from other gluten containing items, and heat it up separately when Alex comes for her meal.” 


Alex Eats her First Meal at College and Gets Terribly Sick



Moving into her new dorm rooom.


With that reassurance Alex decided to try the gluten free pasta her first night at college.  Just to make double sure that it was safe, she texted the Chef to let her know she was coming.  Alex ate the gluten free pasta with a marinara sauce that was served to her in the dining hall.  She got so sick her friends had to walk her back to the dorm.  She spent her first week at UW nauseous and sick. 


I emailed the Chef explaining that Alex got sick.  It turns out that they drained the marinara sauce through a contaminated drain:


I am so sorry to hear that Alex was sick on Friday night. I've gone over it in my head a million times, and realized that the marinara was made in the same kettle that we boil big batches of pasta. We scrub the kettle in between each use, but I think a bit of residual pasta starch may get stuck in the drain of the kettle, which was enough to make Alex sick.


This was such a basic mistake that I lost complete confidence in their ability to provide my daughter a safe meal.  This exemplified to us that UW Dining was not taking the steps necessary to prepare Alex safe meals and they needed further training.  No one with training would serve someone with celiac disease marinara sauce that went through a drain contaminated with wheat pasta. 


We suggest training, as they clearly do not know how to prepare a safe GF meal.  They ignore us. 


At this point, we didn’t feel comfortable with Alex eating in the dining hall until they undertook further training, as they clearly did not take all steps necessary to prepare a safe GF meal.   We started feeding Alex by occasionally dropping off frozen meals from home for her to store in the small refrigerator she shares with her other two roommates.   


I contacted the NFCA to get more information on their training program and offered to pay for the training for UW.   I emailed the Chef providing this solution.   I received absolutely no response from the UW Dining Hall.


I wait two weeks and email them again.  Again, no response.


Director of Disability Resources Suggest Moving Off Campus


Since I was not get any response out of the UW Dining Chef, I emailed the Director of Disability Resources for Students explaining what happened and that we are not getting any response out of the UW Dining Hall. 


I also mentioned the recent Lesley University Settlement with the US Department of Justice regarding the necessity of providing safe gluten free meals for students with celiac disease. The DOJ investigated Lesley University because the school’s mandatory meal plan did not provide sufficient gluten free meals and the school would not excuse participation in the meal plan or provide a reasonable alternative.


In the settlement agreement, the University was required to provide gluten free options in its dining hall, allow students to pre-order meals, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation of gluten free foods to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies, and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students.  Source


I was honestly shocked by the lack of helpful response from the Director of Disability Resources.  They quickly dismissed the Lesley Settlement and told us to “touch base” with the Chef again and/or consider moving off campus.


My advice would be to have Alex touch base with [the Chef] again to explore any remaining options now that she has been on campus for a few weeks. Perhaps the specialized ordering is something to consider more now vs previously. If ultimately Alex wants to move off campus to a place where she wants to cook all her own food that can be explored but the process could vary by the type of housing contract she signed.


UW Dining Chef Admits that she does not feel confident in their ability to provide a safe meal.


Shortly after this, I finally hear back from the UW Dining Chef and she acknowledged that she is not confident in their ability to provide safe meals and that in addition to training, they need to provide dedicated equipment, a dedicated area, etc.


I apologize for being unresponsive to your latest email inquiry regarding safe food for Alex. I feel terrible that Alex has been so limited with her food choices over the last few weeks. My main hesitation in responding is being confident in my response to you. The last thing I want to do is tell you that everything will be ok, and then have Alex get sick again.


I want to be able to say, without a doubt, that we can safely prepare items for Alex. It’s more than just a training issue with my staff. It is having a space that is free of gluten, equipment that is designated for GF items only, storage containers, storage space, etc. If we are going to do this for her, I want to do it right. And I also want to make this a viable option for other students in the future. I’ve passed my concerns along to my immediate supervisor, and will be working with him on a plan to make truly gluten free options available for Alex.

In the meantime, we can package salads for Alex, but I will not feel 100% comfortable with this until we have set GF area and designated equipment to do so.


 We meet again with UW Dining and a new Accommodation is Offered – but still no training, dedicated appliances, etc.


Another meeting is scheduled with the Head Chef and her supervisor, the Administrator of Residential Food Services.  I felt like they were finally taking us seriously at this meeting. As an accommodation, they suggested having one of the Chefs cook meals for Alex on Saturday that would be stored in the refrigerator/freezer.  Alex could ask for her meals and they would be warmed up for her.  We were assured that this Chef was aware of the correct steps to prepare the meals.  However, they still refused to go through any additional training saying they had done some “allergy training” and still did not offer to set up a dedicated area with dedicated appliances.  


Alex was a little bit worried about having to wait 20 minutes for her meals while her friends all eat and leave, so we talked about having the meals ready in the refrigerator and just needing to warm them in a microwave.  They also assured Alex that the salad bar was safe and sent information on the salad dressings. 


Alex Eats her One and Only Safe Meal at UW Dining and is insulted by the Chef


We are in late October now.  Per the instructions they gave Alex, she goes to the dining hall and requests one of her meals.  None of the chefs that she has dealt with up to this point are at work that night so she talks to another chef.  He is one of the main chefs who seems to always be in the dining area.  He was very rude to Alex telling her that they had a lot of food labeled gluten free that she could eat and that he didn’t see why she needed the special meal.  He also made her wait about 20 minutes for her meal as he warmed it up.  By then, all of her friends were done eating but she ate the meal, it was very good and she didn’t get sick.   


The accommodation procedure breaks down; Alex eats her Third Meal and is Glutenized Again.


A week later, Alex follows the same procedure and eats her third and final meal in the dining hall.  As per the procedure, she let them know she was coming.  She got her meal from the same chef as the last time. 


She was very sick for the next two days and somewhat sick for the next week.  In fact, her stomach was growling so loudly that the girls in one of her small groups noticed how loud it was. 


Once again, Alex emails the Head Chef trying to determine what went wrong.  It turns out they did not follow the procedures for accommodating her diet that were agreed to in our meeting.   The meals that were prepared for her were not properly stored so they had all gone bad.  So the chef made her a meal while she waited.   They “talked him through the process” on the telephone.  This is the same chef who was dismissive of her needs for special meals on prior occasions.  They also admitted again that:


We do need to invest in specifically GF equipment, cutting boards, knives and pans and designate one oven to GF foods only.


Alex Requests a Different Accommodation


At this point in time, Alex has absolutely no confidence in the ability of UW Dining to provide her a safe meal.  She has eaten three meals and gotten extremely sick after two of them, which resulted in her being sick most of her first term at UW.  We have offered to pay for training and requested dedicated appliances and a dedicated work area and they have simply refused to do so.   Alex was too worried about her health to eat a meal prepared by them until they take the steps necessary to provide a safe meal.


Her first term of college is coming to an end and one of Alex’s roommates is moving out into an apartment.  There is actually a very nice kitchen and a grocery store on the first floor in her building.   Alex feels that if she could just have a little more storage space to put some pots and pans and food, and more room in her tiny refrigerator, she can start preparing her own meals.  Several rooms identical to hers are doubles.  At this point in time she also only spent about $300 of her $1000 dining account.  



Here only storage space with her panini maker and gluten free supplies.




Her tiny refrigerator that all three of them share - only one is allowed per room. 


Since the UW Dining people are failing to provide her safe meals, Alex emails the Disability Office requesting the room be converted into a double so she can have a little more room to store food and appliances.  She also requested a partial reduction in her meal plan, as she is not using up all of the funds since she is not eating dinner in the dining hall. Alex has made great friends on her dorm floor and understandably does not want to move. 


Once Again, the UW Completely Denies Her Request


The Disability Office seems surprised that she has only eaten three meals in the dining hall.  Once again all of the requests for accommodation are denied and it is suggested that Alex move.  



Hi Alex-


I am curious if you have only had 3 meals at Local Point this entire quarter (8 weeks) where you are eating? Are you cooking in the residence hall?


Unfortunately DRS is not the place for you to start on these items. If you are asking for a change in your meal plan amount that is something that you need to work with UW Dining on, DRS cannot approve changes to meals plans as that would have come up in the Dining consult we approved you for. In terms of the change to your room type it sounds like the larger challenge for you is eating on campus in general. For example, do you eat at anything on campus at all? HUB, food trucks, By George etc.? If you not and you feel you need to control all your own cooking you will want to talk to UW Housing about the option of moving into an apartment style space so you can cook more your own. Then you can use your dining account to order specialized food or bulk ordering through the district market. It is not possible to convert your room to a double with your extra food money to my knowledge. If ultimately you don’t think living on campus is for you after all and you want to move to an off campus apartment where you have complete control you can also talk to UW Housing those steps based on your contract type.


Let me know if you have questions about this.




As suggested, we once again email the UW Dining people and request the same accommodation.  They are not willing to help in the process but again suggest that Alex move out of her dorm.  


Moving would totally disrupt Alex’s freshman year and she would lose contact with her new group of friends, which is almost as important to her adjustment to college life as her meals.  The dorms they suggest are also farther away from her classes.   They also suggested that she reduce her meal account for next quarter (which she did) but even at this reduced level she will not come close to using all of the funds during the school year.  The bolded highlights are my comments.  Sorry, I couldn't help myself.


 Final Letter from UW Dining:


I spoke with [--------] from HFS Students Services about Alex’s plan on converting her triple room to a double.


We will not be able to convert her room from a triple to a double,  Accommodation Denied -


The demand for on-campus housing is very high, and the space in her room that is being vacated has already been assigned to another student for next quarter.

{Suggest she moves to dorm farther away from her classes completely disrupting her freshmen year. These "dorms" are apartment style and designed more for upper classmen}

However, we can offer you a space in a double room in Mercer Court for winter quarter. As you may be aware, Mercer Court apartments have fully appointed kitchens with full-size appliances.

 {But by the way, we really are not willing to help in this matter at all.  You will need to follow all the procedures that everyone else has to follow during a school year when housing is at over capacity. }

If you would like to pursue this option we will need you to decide by December 4 and you will need to complete your room change prior to leaving for winter break.  Please contact Laura Carlisle in the Student Services Office at hfsinfo@uw.edu about this option. 

 Alternatively, if you would like to pursue a room change to a different type of room or different hall, please read about current and future room change options at https://www.hfs.washington.edu/housing/Default.aspx?id=327&libID=348.

 {And no, we are not going to give a credit to your dining account. }

Regarding your dining account, you may want to consider changing to Level 1 for winter quarter and spring quarter. The deadline to change is December 30, and you may make the change at https://www.hfs.washington.edu/myhfs/dininglevel.


 {I am just going to say this so you will go away.}


These two changes would not only greatly facilitate your ability to store ingredients and cook your own meals, but would also allow you the opportunity to use your dining funds as intended, and to still have money available for coffee, salads and special ordering through the market.



So this is where we stand now.  The new semester has started and Alex is back in her triple dorm.  I am back to preparing her freezer meals and delivering them on the weekends, as her tiny refrigerator will not hold very much. 


Despite all of this, Alex is really happy.  She loves UW.  It is one of the most beautiful campuses in the US, she has made great friends and her classes and professors inspire her.  And, now that she is just eating my food, she is actually feeling great. 


We have not heard anything further from the University of Washington and I think they are just happy to be done with us.  We are considering hiring an attorney but the retainer fee is $5000 just so she can get a $5.00 meal!   Plus Alex also doesn’t want to sue her college!  She loves going to UW and doesn’t want her name on a Complaint against them. 


So the University of Washington gets an F at failing to accommodate Alex’s celiac disease, but I also feel like they have won.  From the very beginning they have steadfastly said NO to our requests and offered what was obviously an inadequate accommodation.   Really they just seem to want us to give up and go away.  


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