Celiacs of Smith College Organize for Change

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Veronica Brown '17Associate Editor

Katharine Jessiman-Ketcham ’18 and recent transfer student Raphaela Tayvah ’16 have faced extraordinary challenges during their time at Smith. Both students suffer from celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune illness for which the Celiac Disease Foundation says “the only treatment is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.”

Upon arriving to campus this fall, Jessiman-Ketcham and Tayvah began eating Smith’s gluten-free offerings in the Chase-Duckett dining hall. Both soon began suffering from a myriad of health problems including gastrointestinal issues, headaches, fatigue, depression and anxiety.  Jessiman-Ketcham, who was diagnosed with celiac disease only last year, knew she could no longer eat Smith’s supposedly gluten-free food.

Tayvah reached out to the dining director, Kathy Zieja, as well as an outside nutritionist who assessed Smith’s offerings for celiac students in the summer of 2014. Running counter to everything the school had told her, Tayvah learned from the nutritionist that Smith had been informed in a report that Chase-Duckett was “100 percent not safe for celiac students.”

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage.” If those with celiac disease continue to ingest gluten, they can suffer a variety of a long-term health problems including Type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis and intestinal cancer in addition to the more immediate symptoms.

“Within three weeks, I was cooking all my own food,” Jessamin-Ketcham said, explaining that she and Tayvah began eating only what they could cook in their own rooms using a crock-pot or a hot plate. Like all college students, they found it difficult to find time and energy for this kind of food preparation, but Tayvah explained it was her only option, saying, “I don’t have the time and energy to be poisoning myself.”

Smith initially met several requests for accommodation with resistance, continuing to maintain that Chase-Duckett was a suitable option for students with celiac disease. Frustrated, Jessamin-Ketcham says she would have continued to “live off the contents of a mini fridge” if not for when Elizabeth Synge ’15 had to go on medical leave due to complications of her celiac disease. Jessamin-Ketcham and Tayvah call this event the final “tipping point” they needed to move for change.

“It’s scary to see someone have their education stopped when they have the same disease as you,” said Jessiman-Ketcham.

Although members of the school’s administration wanted to help, bureaucratic red tape slowed down meaningful change.  After another disheartening meeting with administrators, Jessiman-Ketcham and Tayvah took to social media, launching a Facebook page and Instagram account under the name “Celiacs of Smith College.” They also created a change.org petition, which has since gained close to 500 signatures. As the campaign gained significant attention from students, alumnae and administrators, a solution emerged.

Dawes, previously the French language special interest house, has sat empty since the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Zieja suggested the unused kitchen as a place for gluten-free food preparation and dining. A cook now comes in several times a week to prepare meals, and the students have access with a key. A group now regularly eats at Dawes together.

“We finally have a community around eating again, which is great,” explained Tayvah, who previously felt alienated from potential sources of community. “So much of house community is built around eating together, and we don’t eat with our house.”

Tayvah and Jessiman-Ketcham hope to continue using Dawes House. Although Zieja explained that the working committee on the issue  “has put forward the recommendation that we use the Dawes kitchen and that is our preferred option for the future…our facilities staff are evaluating the feasibility of this space.” The school needs to assess the practicality of fixing several current issues, including wheelchair inaccessibility.

As the school year draws to a close, the future of gluten-free dining at Smith remains unclear but promising. Dean of the College and Vice President of Campus Life Donna Lisker commented, “We’re considering final options, but the president has promised that there will be a fully gluten-free space available for the students, and we will fulfill that promise.” Despite her harrowing first year of college, Jessiman-Ketcham would like the school to see the positive potential in the situation, explaining that “no [college] has a good solution that works, but Smith can be one of the first colleges, if not the first college, to have a celiac friendly campus.”