You overslept, were late to class, didn’t finish the reading, and the line to get food at Usdan is so long that it’s making the lines for rides at Disneyland look less daunting. You feel like you’ve had a rough day, and you have. But, it could have been worse, or at least more complicated.
Imagine having the same day, but to add to the stress, you might not be able to grab a lunch from just anywhere. You have allergies, celiac disease, or have some other type of dietary restriction that makes it impossible to casually grab a bite on campus or at a restaurant. For many students at the University, the latter scenario is their reality.
Enter Rachel Sobelsohn ’17, who was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 10. Celiac is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack itself when it ingests gluten. Sobelsohn tends to experience severe stomachaches and fatigue when she does ingest gluten, but many people with celiac experience a variety of other symptoms.
“It’s definitely had a huge impact on my life,” Sobelsohn wrote in an email to The Argus. “The common misconception is that I just have to worry about food, but that’s not all. I need to check lip balm brands, toothpaste, basically anything that I put in my mouth. As silly as that sounds, it’s real.”
As a result, Sobelsohn came to the University inspired to start a gluten-free baking club. The club has seen a number of name changes and transformations, but presently is called Eating Allergy-Safe and Yummy (EASY). Sobelsohn runs the club with Ilana Newman ’18, who is allergic to artificial colorings, flavorings, and preservatives. The duo describe EASY as a community for people with any kind of allergy or dietary restriction.
“We [wanted] to make it a place where anyone who has food allergies can cook delicious meals,” Sobelsohn wrote. “If you’ll indulge me, we wanted to make it EASY to be at Wes. Some students who show up have allergies, some have celiac disease, some avoid certain foods because it makes them feel sick, and many have some sort of combination of these.”
But EASY goes beyond being a place for students to cook themselves meals they can eat. It’s a support group of sorts—a place where students with allergies can become empowered to advocate for themselves.
Both Sobelsohn and Newman discussed the difficulties that students at the University who have dietary restrictions face and how troubling it can be to attend simple social events.
“If my friends and I decide we want to eat out at a restaurant, I have to research restaurants beforehand,” Sobelsohn wrote. “Also, at every campus event I attend, any food offered is generally off-limits to me, which is a bummer. Unless I contact the person organizing the event beforehand, and double-check the ingredients and food preparation and then take food before everyone else, it’s just not safe for me to eat. This is an added task that I wish could be handled without me, but I have realized I need to [do] the work if I want to eat at these events. Most times, I don’t have time to reach out in advance and end up eating beforehand.”
Furthermore, students with allergies also encounter difficulties when they run into people who do not believe that their allergies are real. Newman has encountered this many times. When she was younger, she often had adults tell her that her allergy was silly and not a real thing. She believes this stems partially from the recent trends in our culture towards eating more healthily, and has noticed that it seems to be a current problem particularly for those who need to be gluten-free.
“It’s interesting because gluten free is also a new fad diet now,” Newman said. “So there are people who actually have real dietary issues with it, and there are people who are gluten-free because they think it’ll help them lose weight. My theory is that the whole gluten free as a fad diet has been good because now there are more products available, and it’s more well known. But, people don’t take it as seriously now because they see so many people being gluten-free whom it’s not a serious thing for. So they think it’s not a serious thing for anyone. That is very far from the truth.”
Newman describes her allergy as also falling into the trap of the current gluten-free fad.
“My allergy is very uncommon, and I think is connected to the whole gluten-free issue,” Newman said. “This organic and all-natural [fad] is great, and I would hesitate to call it a fad because hopefully it’s [here] to stay, but when people hear that I can only have all natural food, and that I can’t [eat] artificial preservatives or artificial colors they think, ‘Oh she’s just like a hippy or whatever.’”
Learning to advocate for yourself is essential for those with allergies or dietary restrictions.
“For people who might have allergies like mine, learn the science,” Newman said. “Be able to explain the science to people. I found that people reacted much better. I’ve actually gotten a lot of people who say that my allergies don’t exist. Once I was able to learn the science and explain the science calmly, [people] were a lot more receptive.”
Together, through EASY, Sobelsohn and Newman have helped many students better advocate for their dietary needs. Recently, they helped Joy Feinberg ’19, who adheres to a strict Kosher diet. Feinberg took a leaf from Newman and was able to work out a way for her to eat while still adhering to her specific Kosher needs.
“In short, I was very stressed at the beginning of the semester because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Feinberg said. “But luckily [Bon Appetit] really takes student comfort seriously. They make sure that every student has their needs met. I am very grateful.”
Learning to live with allergies has been a journey for Sobelsohn and others like her. She encourages students to reach out to their friends and find out if they have allergies. It makes Sobelsohn happy when her friends make the effort to accommodate her allergies. If any students at the University feel like they need a community, she encourages them to reach out to her or Newman via the EASY Facebook page or through their emails, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
“Now that I’m comfortable talking about having celiac and what I need to do in order to stay gluten free, life has gotten easier,” Sobelsohn wrote. “But I definitely felt a stigma, that I was inconveniencing people—even if they told me I wasn’t. I am incredibly appreciative toward people who want to accommodate me food-wise, but I no longer feel like a burden. That is a huge step for me, from when I first arrived at Wes and realized I needed to figure out celiac-safe food on my own.”