A Place at the Table: Gluten-free Students Find Community at Dawes

Photo by Veronica Brown '16 Several gluten-free students pose in the new Dawes dining hall with chefs Lisa Seymour and Scott Rubeck. Veronica Brown '16 Associate Editor Last year, The Sophian reported on the struggle of a group of students with Celiac disease to gain access to purely gluten-free food. This year, many students may have noticed a new addition to the roster of locations on the Smith dining app. Dawes, formerly the French language house, now serves two hot, gluten-free meals every day. At lunch this past week, Dawes’s small, modern dining room, which seats about 18, buzzed with students. In between talking about classes and study abroad programs, students plan a time to make face boards and have Friday afternoon tea. “It’s really nice to have that community,” said Raphaela Tayvah ’16, one of the lead organizers of Celiacs of Smith College, adding with a laugh, “We bond over our medical anomalies.” The students remarked on how much of an improvement the introduction of a gluten-free dining hall in Dawes is compared to past years’ gluten-free option. “I almost cried the first time I saw it,” Ashley Rohall ’18 said of the newly renovated Dawes. Rohall recalls subsisting mainly on gluten-free cereal in her room last year, an experience that many others shared. Dawes operates on the same schedule for hot meals as every other dining hall, including brunch on the weekends. Although they do not offer hot breakfast, the students can swing by and pick up gluten-free breakfast food from the kitchen. Diners are granted 24-hour swipe access, “because if other students need snacks later on, they can go to the CC, and we can’t do that,” Tayvah said. This summer, Smith added a wheelchair ramp outside of Dawes in addition to updating the dining room and kitchen. Construction is currently underway to double seating capacity and install a kitchenette for students to prepare their own food. Smith named Andy Cox the new head of Dining Services last spring. Tayvah described him as “an amazing ally from as soon as he was hired.” Cox intimately understands the reality of living with Celiac disease – his wife was diagnosed with it 11 years ago. Although Cox is involved with the planning of the Dawes renovation, he credits much of Dawes’s beginning to his predecessor, Kathy Zieja, who “laid the groundwork and solicited many opinions in the design process of Dawes.” Smith has pioneered the solution of an independent dining hall to serve gluten-free students, an option only made feasible by the school’s unique dining hall system. Cox is currently in the planning stages of a reassessment of Dining Services. “Our internal brainstorming is looking at dining through a variety of lenses: training and communication, safety, sustainability, menus and procurement and technology and efficiency. I am currently outlining roles for students and other community members to undertake a similar process.” Although some students found a solution in Dawes, several students decided to transfer at the end of last year, including Katherine Jessiman-Ketcham, one of the lead organizers of Celiacs of Smith College. Jessiman-Ketcham entered Brown University this year as a sophomore transfer. She reported via e-mail that Brown has given her the ability to “live off-campus…and cook my own food, something that I just couldn’t figure out in Northampton in terms of location and also the social emphasis on house community at Smith.” Tayvah stresses that the Dawes dining room still has open places at the table. Any student interested in eating at Dawes must “register with the Office of Disability Services and submit medial information about their health concerns,” explained Laura Rauscher, director of Disability Services. “If someone has no medical information, they can still come to ODS and may be granted access on a temporary basis.” Cox, who is eager to communicate with students in order to make sure their needs are met, said, “What I like most about [Dawes] isn’t the shiny new equipment but rather the ability to create a space where students can feel welcomed and safe.” While it remains unclear whether Dawes will be a permanent solution to all gluten-free dining problems, the small but vocal group of students remains extremely grateful for the progress. Elena Karlsen-Ayala ’16, a frequent Dawes diner, said, “In the three years I’ve been here, this is the first time I go to class, study and go to bed with a full belly and feeling well.”