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Some students struggle to have dietary needs met at dining halls due to COVID-19 guidelines

As Ohio University students report skipping meals because of long waits at the campus dining halls, students with food allergies and dietary restrictions have also found it difficult to order food. 

Kaitlyn Robinson, a sophomore studying communication sciences and disorders, has Celiac disease, along with her roommate, Riley Zielinski, a sophomore studying biological sciences. Robinson said after Margaret’s, a dining concept in The District on West Green that caters to people with food allergies, was closed this semester, it made it harder to find suitable options.

“We went to that console every day last year, and this year, they aren’t opening it at all ... unless there was a huge demand for it,” Robinson said. “But right now, they’re not opening it, so we’ve just been calling in our food before getting dinner.”

Zielinski said the first day they were back on campus, she and Robinson tried to go to Margaret’s in Boyd, but they were not notified it had been closed. She said she only found out about the closure because that option was gone from the District on West Green menu page online.

Zielinski said her and her roommate then decided to go to Nelson for other options, such as omelets. However, they discovered that the omelet station was now serving pancakes half of the time.

“Usually, you have to order food an hour in advance if you want an allergy-friendly meal, which is a lot when you’re a college student,” Zielinski said. “We do a lot of things on the fly, so it can be hard to figure out how to schedule that. But, obviously, we hadn’t called ahead on this day. We just asked what the quickest thing they could make was, and they ended up shutting down the pancake station to make two omelets for us. It was kind of embarrassing to be standing there with people in line behind us.”

Zielinski also said on the special diets website, it still suggests you go to Margaret’s, despite the concept being closed.

“I really would’ve liked to have come back to campus with the knowledge that our food situation is going to be a lot different this semester,” she said. “I understand that they’ve made cuts everywhere because of the pandemic. My complaint isn’t that there were cuts made, just kind of the scale and what was cut.”

Robinson said even last year when they could go to Margaret’s, there weren’t a lot of choices for them and she didn’t feel that they were really comparable to the choice others had.

“We had done some math at some point and just figured out the dollar amount that each swipe translates to, I think it’s seven to nine dollars depending on your meal plan,” Zielinski said. “And when your only option is a turkey sandwich, that can really start to feel like way too much money.”

Some of the cost incorporated in the meal plan for students is the ability to choose between multiple dining halls and concepts, Zielinski said.

“We’re still paying for those options that we will never be able to access,” she said. 

Both Robinson and Zielinski made it a point to say what a great job the cooks in dining halls do.

“We end up actually kind of befriending them. They know us by name,” Zielinski said. “They’re definitely not the problem, and I don’t want to imply that they’re doing anything wrong, because they’re really doing their best.”

Despite her situation, Robinson said she has not really heard of a demand to bring Margaret’s back right now. Zielinski said because it was geared toward people with food allergies, it probably wasn’t as popular with other students.

“It probably seemed like a logical response to needing to save money to close your lowest performing concept,” Zielinski said. “So when you close off your only designated food allergy concept and push people into the system of calling in all their food ahead of time, it’s just not the same decision, to me, as shutting down any other concept because … you’re not taking away 100% of the on-demand access.”

Rich Neumann, director of Culinary Services, said students with food allergies can reach out to Angie Bohyer, the university’s registered dietitian, for dietary needs.

“We feel we can meet the needs of all the students with special dietary needs without opening the Margaret’s which would present social distancing challenges,” Neumann said in an email.

Neumann said dining hall menus are available to view online and have all common food allergies listed. 

“I would be happy with either reopening Margaret’s or expanding the call-in (ordering), which might be the university’s plan,” Zielinski said. “They really haven’t told us much, so this might be an issue that is only happening the first few weeks, but as they get it up and running, they’ll have the call-in system much more expansive. But for now, it is kind of a problem eating the same thing over and over again.”


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