Making a Difference on Campus: Gluten-Free Clubs

Stories and Advice from Gluten-Free Students

By Emily Rich

I was diagnosed with celiac disease between my freshman and sophomore years of college. As soon as I found out the source of my problems, I began researching gluten-free… everything. I came upon a Facebook page with 5 likes, created by a girl who wanted to start a gluten-free club at my school.

Fast-forward two years: I am a senior and the current president of the club. Our emails go out to about 50 students and we have 180 Facebook fans. We even have a dedicated gluten-free restaurant on campus. As a result of this growth and realization that we can make a difference, we are even tackling the huge job of organizing a city-wide gluten-free expo this year to “advocate, educate and support.”

How can you make a difference on your campus?

Recruiting other gluten-free club members

Our first club fair. One goal. Two members.
Lots of gluten-free food to giveaway!

First you should consider creating a club. Pick a name, go to your student government and begin making social media accounts. You will need a Facebook, Twitter, club email address and a blog or website. Find a faculty member to support you. We are lucky enough to have a nutritionist from campus health who has celiac disease. Post flyers. Plan fun events that are centered on what you all share in common: being gluten-free. Have pizza parties, dine out together, host BBQS, ice cream socials, cooking classes, monthly meetings, play games – inappropriate, college student games to break the ice (like cards against humanity)! You guys are going to be the best group of supportive gluten-free friends in no time. Then, you can approach dining services together and begin having meetings to improve gluten-free foods on campus.

Gluten-Free Girls at Diamondbacks Game

We raise awareness off campus, too! As Udi’s
Ambassadors, we gave out samples at an
Arizona Diamondbacks game.

Dining Services

We were lucky to have a receptive dining services department who just needed to understand gluten-free needs a little better. Our campus had products, but really lacked the education. My suggestion when talking to your dining folks is to educate them on the number of students out there who need safe gluten-free food. Explain the severity of what can happen if their food is cross-contaminated. Stand outside and get signatures from gluten-free students who are looking for options, too. They are a business; show dining services what’s in it for them. There is a huge market for gluten-free food and there are lots of statistics to show it. At the same time, students need to be able to trust the food they’re being served and that’s where the education and protocols come in. If the food isn’t completely free of gluten, then students won’t buy it. Basically, not serving safe gluten-free food could very well result in students not purchasing the food.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. If you’re going to take people out to eat, make sure the food they’re being served is actually gluten-free! Whether it’s grabbing a friend and going into the restaurant kitchen for a tour beforehand or calling the manager. You do not want to get club members sick! Just because some people may say they are “less sensitive” than others does not mean you can leave out those who react to a very small amount of gluten contamination. Take every precaution you can so that no one gets excluded, because let’s face it, any amount of contamination is bad for us all, no matter if we show symptoms or not.

Gluten-free club dining out

Our growing club enjoying a gluten-free
meal at a local restaurant.

2. Don’t expect that everyone on campus is going to want to be involved and be as excited as you are. In fact, expect that most people are just going to want to benefit from the positive impact you are having on campus. That doesn’t make what your doing any less important.

3. Most importantly, as the president of the organization, you have to be accepting and understanding, but firm in promoting a strict, gluten-free lifestyle. You may have to stand up for someone if another club member begins to question them or put them down. However, you must never stop educating. Teach people about the severity of “cheating.” You can be supportive while still being secure in your beliefs and helping them to stick to their gluten-free diet.

Why bother?

Celiac win

Why take the time, money and energy to create a gluten-free club on your campus? It’s simple really: because it will change your life! I’m not trying to say that you won’t be able to get through college without a gluten-free club or that this entire process is going to be all butterflies and rainbows. There will be times when you feel like no one cares, or that you’re the only gluten-free college student for miles and you will wonder what’s the point. But if you can stick it out and continue to plan events and reach out to people, what you will create is so powerful it can change everything. Those moments when you feel excluded by friends, you are left out of pizza and beer, or you get “glutened” by your dining hall, you can look on your Facebook friends or in your phone and find at least a few people to talk to, who understand every bit of emotion you’re experiencing in that moment. Or maybe you are promoting the club with a celiac disease signs and symptoms board and someone walks up and says, “I think this is what’s wrong with me.” Suddenly, it’s all worth it.

– Emily