Pandemic restrictions curtail Dining Center accommodations


Jin Ko/Courtesy

A view of Emerson’s Dining Center from the Boylston Place alley.

By Camilo Fonseca, Editor-at-large

Emerson’s dining services cut back on the special accommodations traditionally offered to students with allergies and dietary intolerances, making their eating experiences during the pandemic far more challenging to navigate than just a simple meal swipe.

The Dining Center, which is run by Bon Appétit Management Company, implemented broad social distancing and minimal contact requirements at the beginning of the fall semester, shifting to exclusively grab-and-go meals. The changes have resulted in the suspension of various specialized dining services for students with food allergies, Dawn Sajdyk, general manager of Bon Appétit at Emerson, said.

In past semesters, students were able to make special dining requests in-person, communicating directly with the cooks to customize their meal preparation in real-time. The discontinuation of the walk-up, cook-to-order station—a result of the pandemic—has eliminated a major option for those with food allergies.

“It’s definitely been challenging with the pandemic in terms of offering as much as we would like this year,” she said in an interview. “Certainly the made-to-order dishes have been something we really miss doing because that gives more people [the ability] to pick and choose their ingredients more.”

The Dining Center still offers some general dietary provisions, like the regular preparation of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals. The Oasis station on the center’s upper level also serves meals without any of the eight major allergens, while minimizing cross-contamination. 

For sophomore Gabrielle Jonikas, who has a specific intolerance to garlic and onions, it has been difficult to cope with even the specialized food the Dining Center provides. 

“It’s often a gamble whether I can eat them or not,” Jonikas said in an interview. “Even though it seems like there’s a wide variety in what they make, a lot of the ingredients they use are repeated over and over. And those ingredients happen to be things that I personally can’t eat, which is frustrating.”

Jonikas said she checks the online menu for the grab-and-go options at Oasis and eats there four to five times a week.

“I can look at the menu in advance and know if they have something that I can eat,” she said. “Obviously it would be ideal if they had something every single day that I could eat.”

Despite the pandemic’s limitations, students are still able to request personalized meals virtually—though Jonikas said that, so far this year, she has not pursued the option. She had previously tried reaching out to Dining Services for special meals last year but ran into difficulties receiving a reply from Bon Appetit, meaning she was unable to make arrangements for specialized meals before campus shut down in March.

“I know that if I [had] made a more active effort myself to try to get specialized meals, then they would have done it for me,” Jonikas said, “Because I put in a half effort into getting help, that probably didn’t help anything—but I did find it kind of strange that they never responded to me.”

In contrast to Jonikas, first-year student Nicholas Wong does rely on the personalized meal program. After the pandemic, which forced college officials to close the residence hall kitchen areas, he altered his original plan of cooking his meals himself.

“I’ve been allergic to all the major allergens, along with some small allergies on the side,” he said. “[My family and I] were very concerned about how the situation would be.”

Even with face-to-face contact curtailed, Wong is able to ensure that his daily needs are being met after having been placed in direct contact with the chef, as other students in his position are. He said he attributes much of his positive experience with the Dining Center to his close relationship with the cooking staff. 

“I can directly text the chef if I need anything, ask him about anything,” Wong said. “He’s very friendly and personable to text, so it’s been very easy communicating with him.”

Sajdyk said Bon Appétit hopes to bring back some of the specialized accommodations in the spring.

Despite the limitations to its standard meal services, the Dining Center earned a nomination for Food Allergy Research & Education Community Choice Award, honoring the college’s dedication to meeting the needs of students with dietary allergies. FARE aims to raise awareness for dietary restrictions around the world, and the Community Choice Award recognizes “outstanding accommodations” for students with food allergies and intolerances. 

“Great collaboration” and “open communication” were two of the highlights cited in the college’s Oct. 15 nomination on the FARE website, where students had the opportunity to vote on the six nominees. 

Ultimately, it was announced on Nov. 6, at the FARE College Summit, that Baylor University had earned the award.

According to the organization’s website, Emerson—along with two other Massachusetts colleges, Babson College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute—was nominated for the prize by a student’s family member. 

“I could go on for thousands of words because our family is so grateful for all the dining hall team has done for [our daughter],” read the nomination submitted to the FARE website.

Sajdyk said she encouraged students to reach out to Food Services or to her personally to discuss their food intolerances and ask about accommodations.

“Our biggest thing here is making sure that students feel comfortable coming in asking questions,” she said. “If they don’t see something and want to see something, I’m very happy to bring things in, put things on menus, change things up as much as we can to provide the variety in what they’re looking for.”

Both Wong and Jonikas said open and straightforward communication with the Dining Services staff was paramount in ensuring their dining needs are being met, especially during a time when in-person communication has been limited. 

“As long as they keep having close communications with the kids that need these dietary accommodations, they should be okay,” Wong said. “If you just assume anything about these [dietary] instructions, then it can become very problematic.”