Editorial: Smith College plates lifesaving alternatives

  • Corn chowder, bratwurst and braised cabbage are offered for lunch in Dawes House,the gluten-free dining room at Smith College. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/14/2016 12:30:33 PM

Given the sights and mouth-watering smells inside the Dawes House dining hall at Smith College, you’d never guess that students come here for a grim reason: to manage the symptoms of an incurable disease.

But that’s the reality for students making their way through their undergraduate years with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that brings an array of uncomfortable digestive symptoms and damages the lining of the small intestine.

Smith is one of the first colleges in the United States to act on the need that students with celiac disease have to avoid gluten, the protein that triggers their malady. For those students, the ability to eat in a setting safe from the cross-contamination of foods containing gluten can be a lifesaver.

While many popular diets steer people away from gluten, avoiding that substance is in no way a lifestyle choice for the dozens of Smith students who now eat lunches and dinners in the yellow house not far from Elm Street.

It is, quite frankly, a matter of survival. Students won this option by petitioning Smith administrators.

As sophomore Hannah Elbaum told Gazette reporter Lisa Spear, “There is a much better understanding of what it means to be gluten-free now. It’s not a fad diet, it’s not just for fun.”

After all their years of food compromises, students at Dawes sit down to tempting meals cooked by chefs Lisa Seymour and Scott Rubeck. As their menus attest, you don’t need gluten to serve delicious food.

With celiac disease, damage to the hair-like villi in the lining of the small intestine impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. The problem leads to weight loss and, as students interviewed for Spear’s recent story explained, can restrict growth at critical ages.

According to Barry Hirsch, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Baystate Regional Medical Center in Springfield, malnutrition can result, as well as anemia, osteoporosis and exhaustion.

Before the Dawes House dining hall went gluten-free, students say they had to forage for foods on or off campus that would not trigger adverse reactions. That’s hardly acceptable. Smith should be applauded for responding to student demands by investing in a safe alternative for the roughly 40 undergraduates now making use of it. It provides a model for how private schools can address a problem overlooked for years.

While the numbers are small, and may remain so, the gluten-free option levels the culinary playing field at Smith and provides equitable treatment to students who have every right to expect to be able to eat food that’s good for them.

Every year in the United States, 200,000 people discover they have celiac disease, according to medical estimates. The disorder affects one in 130 people.

To eat at Dawes, students must get approval through the school’s office of disability services and provide medical proof that they must avoid gluten.

That’s as it should be, for this is serious business. It calls for a financial commitment from the college, but knowing that students were struggling, it needed to act. As word of this option spreads, Smith may get a look from applicants who deserve healthy food options while hitting the books.

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