College students love to eat. It’s one of those universal truths; like “grass is green” and “OU sucks.”
But it can be harder for students with health, lifestyle and religious dietary restrictions to eat at UT. Vegan, gluten-free, kosher and halal diets pose challenges for students trying to eat on and around campus.
Jewish students who keep kosher and Muslim students who observe halal or Zabihah face greater challenges, and for the most part, the Division of Housing and Food Services does not have the ability to meet their needs in dining halls, said Brandy Shih, a dietitian for DHFS.
The two diets require certain types of meat and specific preparations, and DHFS doesn’t have the resources to kosher- or halal-certify its kitchens, given the limited demand and high costs.
There are a number of restaurants in Austin that offer Zabihah meat, which requires that the animal was slaughtered by a Muslim in the name of Allah, including Kismet Cafe on 24th Street. Students who keep Zabihah and live in on- and off-campus dorms mostly eat vegetarian, said business graduate student Sabina Mohammed, who only eats Zabiha meat.
There are no kosher restaurants within walking distance of campus and the only grocery store that sells kosher meat in Austin is the HEB in Far West. Texas Hillel offers kosher Shabbat dinners on Fridays, but most kosher-observant Jewish students have to stay vegetarian the rest of the week, especially if they live on campus.
“A lot of people keep kosher but will still eat vegetarian when they go out or eat on campus,” said Margo Sack, the director of Jewish student life at Texas Hillel. “There are also [a few dozen] students who keep very strict kosher, so they’ll only eat things that have rabbinic supervision. We have met with the University to talk about these issues, and it’s not an issue of not wanting to be responsive; it’s just really hard to meet such specific needs.”
Melissa Dunn is a supply chain management and Middle Eastern studies sophomore and business representative in Student Government who keeps kosher.
She said she is meeting with DHFS administrators, students and other officials to discuss how to make UT more accessible to people with specific dietary needs.
“I shouldn’t have had to be a vegetarian when I was paying to live on campus,” said Dunn, who now lives in an apartment and has had her kitchen kosher-certified by a rabbi. “If you keep kosher, you need pre-packaged food, and it would be great to see DHFS offer that in the markets.”
She said she also wants to discuss the possibility of expanded late-night options and better advertising for the programs DHFS does have, specifically related to vegetarian and gluten-free options.
“For a college campus, UT does really well,” said accounting and Spanish junior Samantha Darnell, who lives on campus and doesn’t eat gluten and eats no meat or dairy except eggs. “My food choices are very repetitive — I’ll have beans, vegetables and fruit most days — but since it is a choice for me, I’m fine with eating what a lot of people would consider a bland variation of foods. I’m rather proud of DHFS lately because they keep introducing more and more vegetarian options and really good stuff.”
Although Darnell keeps a gluten-free diet by choice, she said that if she actually had celiac disease, the condition that causes gluten intolerance, she would be more wary of eating on campus since it is so easy for food to be contaminated. However, she said options like the gluten-free pizza available by request in Kinsolving Dining Center are a great choice for many students with less severe gluten allergies.
DHFS is working to better advertise its options for students with diverse needs, and Shih is available to meet with any student who needs help determining how to eat nutritiously and safely on campus, she said.
“We try to meet the needs of all of our students as much as we can,” Shih said. “All of our managers and chefs put a lot more energy into the fall menus to create more options. We have a lot of options that people may not know about, but we face limitations.”
This year, DHFS is giving special attention to expanded vegetarian and gluten-free options, she said. For example, the dining halls switched their brand of soy sauce to one that doesn’t contain gluten, and Jester City Limits added a vegetarian- and gluten-free-specific line. DHFS hosts a vegetarian focus group so students can provide feedback on meatless options.
But in the past when DHFS has offered vegan entrees, they tend to just sit on the line, Shih said. Jester Second Floor Dining Room and Kinsolving cafeterias both offer vegan soups as well as fruits and vegetables, and DHFS has not heard much demand for expanded vegan options.
“DHFS does a lot of the stuff that people want, but it’s not publicized right,” Dunn said. “Once the word gets out about what’s there, we can put more attention on vegan food issues and gluten-free and religious diets.”