Image courtesy of Abigail Lev / North by Northwestern.

Content warning: This story contains mention of unbalanced eating habits. If you are in crisis or experiencing any concerns with your diet, please contact CAPS.

In eighth grade, I found out that I had a severe gluten intolerance. Shortly after, I became a pescatarian. The former was a necessity, and the latter was a choice I was happy to make. Still, that didn’t mean that eating was easy for me. I often struggle with ordering at restaurants, eating at events or just finding food in general.

I’m sure that when most people committed to Northwestern, they had the general anxieties: finding a roommate, taking the right classes, making friends. Meanwhile, I was afraid of what food I would (or more likely wouldn’t) be able to eat.

All first- and second-year students are on an open meal plan and have unlimited swipes into the dining halls. Yet, for people with dietary restrictions like me, these unlimited swipes don’t mean much.

It remains a problem to find dependable food in our dining halls. There have been times where foods do not contain gluten, but are missing a gluten-free label. I’ve been eating the salad dressings at the dining halls since Fall Quarter – despite their lack of a gluten-free seal – but it’s important to realize that, depending on the severity of an individual’s allergy, the unreliability of the dining halls can pose a large threat.

I am far from the first person to experience these challenges.

Weinberg second-year Natalie Pizer shares my worries. Pizer is allergic to fish, nuts, sesame, apples, mangoes, cherries and melon. Similar to me, Pizer has dealt with these allergies for a long time, although when she first arrived on campus, she was a little more daring with her food.

“To start the year, I was fairly adventurous and would eat at any of the stations,” Pizer said.

However, Pizer’s perspective changed during Spring Quarter when she accidentally ate food labeled as containing sesame seeds at Plex East, an allergy-friendly dining hall. She did not end up having an allergic reaction, and later found out that the item was actually mislabeled.

“It definitely messed with me a little bit,” Pizer said. “I didn't feel like I could trust everything that they had listed on their ingredients.”

With her lack of faith in the dining halls, Pizer often relies on meal exchanges or grocery shopping.

“For a while I wasn't really doing lunch or dinner there,” Pizer recounts. “I was going to a student center that I felt really comfortable with or buying a lot of groceries and stocking them in my room.”

Pizer’s concerns sometimes went as far as unintentionally restricting herself to “not eating more than one meal a day.” She added that going out of her way to avoid certain foods and just to find something safe to eat cut into her social life as well.

“I was not eating enough food to keep me going during the quarter and I was missing out on time to socialize with my friends,” Pizer said.

I definitely identify with Pizer’s words. For me, it's easiest to stick with what I know; consistently relying on the same meals at the same dining halls doesn't provide for a dynamic diet, though. Like Pizer, I often lean on meal exchanges at Norris, but tend to be met with the disappointment of no more cauliflower crust at MOD or gluten-free bread at Wildcat Deli.

Breakfast is undoubtedly the hardest meal for me. I often only eat an apple and grapes because there are no gluten-free pancakes available and the tofu scramble has gluten.

While I find ways to ensure that I can get a full meal, this often includes eating fruit stored in my dorm or having to check out multiple options before deciding. Sometimes, I will also eat at a separate dining hall than my friends, since I know that Elder and Plex will always have better salad options and Allison has the best gluten-free waffles.

After almost two full quarters of dealing with this, I realize that there is much room for improvement with the food on campus, especially for those with allergies. We pay for meal plans with little avail: Many of the options don’t quite work for allergens and people with dietary restrictions. I spend so much time struggling to find food to eat and worrying about the dining hall situation, when really it shouldn’t be a huge concern for me.

Pizer describes it best: moving into college is tough. “When you're dealing with allergies on top of that,” it is even tougher. “You feel very isolated.”

Ideally, Northwestern would be able to get input from those with allergies and revamp this system. It is exhausting having to constantly stress over my food situation, and especially as a first-year, this new situation was overwhelming. Until that happens, though, I will have to stick with what I, and many others, have done – look for the best dining hall options, keep extra options in our dorms and stay flexible.