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Editorial: CDS must do better to serve students with dietary, religious restrictions

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UNC first-year dental hygienist major Alex Gutierrez swipes into Chase Dining Hall on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023.

Carolina only accepts the best, so we only serve the best.”

This particular statement can be found on the Carolina Dining Services website, coupled with promises of fresh, healthy food that will satisfy students. 

UNC dining halls pride themselves on meal options, especially for those with specific dietary restrictions.

With two primary dining halls open to the campus community and a few restaurants located throughout campus, it certainly feels like students have the luxury of choice. 

Sunday through Thursday, regular dining hall hours range from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., with Chase Dining Hall open for “late night” until 12 a.m.

But Friday and Saturday hours are more slim, and late night is not offered. The dining options aren't as freeing as you would think.

In addition to this, we've found that UNC's current dining hall system fails to provide satisfactory options for religious or voluntary diets. The limited hours leave decent options for those who do not follow a diet, but often meager and insufficient choices for those who do. For those who have severe allergies or follow religious based diets, access is incredibly important.

Both Chase and Lenoir dining halls have “Stress Less” corners: cabinets and freezers that omit gluten, tree nuts and peanut ingredients.

Though this is a start, these cabinets only include individually wrapped items that students must microwave or eat at the temperature they are. Many gluten-free options, such as the gluten-free hoagie rolls at Lenoir’s deli section, are not stored, prepared or served separately from other food, increasing the risk of dangerous cross-contamination. For those with celiac disease, this is a life-threatening issue.

Perhaps the most concerning issue is that students of different faiths, like Judaism and Islam, can also face difficulties in finding food options on campus that fit their dietary restrictions and time frames.

Some Jewish students follow kosher dietary regulations, which include not eating food with pork and shellfish or anything that has been handled with utensils cross-contaminated between meat and dairy products.

Potential cross-contamination of meals or mislabeled food selections creates worry not just for students who keep kosher, but also Muslim students who eat halal.

Muslim students recently expressed their concerns regarding halal foods in the dining halls. While CDS has offered halal proteins since 2022 and has a labeling system for these options, implementation of these efforts has seemed lackluster. The system is confusing at best and incorrect at worst. For example, students have recognized pork sausages, a non-halal food, have been marked as halal in the past. Even if the foods were always correctly labeled, Muslim students could still run into trouble with cross-contamination between halal and non-halal foods if dining hall workers are not properly trained on how to handle them, a training which is not outlined in CDS safety policies. Although, CDS does use color coordinated serving utensils to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

CDS has made some effort to make dining at UNC more accessible to students with dietary restrictions. After working with the UNC Muslim Students Association, CDS added halal-friendly options every day and to-go options during dinner and late night at Chase — as well as dates, a traditional food when breaking fast — during Ramadan.  

However, we feel that there are still very limited dining options open after sundown for these students. The CDS website mentions to-go options for Muslim students fasting during Ramadan, but this isn't enough and still doesn’t target the underlying issue of limited dining hall hours.

When dining halls close their regular dinner hours at 8 p.m., it makes it difficult for students to find healthy and fulfilling options without paying out of pocket, especially during these religious holidays, and it calls into question if UNC and CDS are making enough effort to serve all of their community. 

CDS also puts the onus of religious diets on students, instead of shouldering the burden themselves. On its website, CDS explains that students “may ask for a clean pan if [they] are worried about cross contact."

People who are vegan or vegetarian face similar concerns about cross-contamination and lack of availability. There is one vegan station each at Chase and Lenoir which rotates for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but there isn’t a vegan station available at Chase’s late night. Even during regular hours, the options are often a pale imitation of the non-vegan options and lack flavor and cohesiveness. It is not enough for students to only be able to eat from one station for a short time during the day.

Students with dietary restrictions deserve options, along with food that is enjoyable to eat, not just which meets the bare minimum nutritional requirements. While we understand at the end of the day that this is ultimately dining hall food, we are paying for it. CDS must provide appetizing options for a student body as diverse as UNC's, and that looks like more than just ticking a box for whatever allergen is being avoided.

It could look like CDS extending dining hall hours and food availability during holidays like Ramadan, having at least two different meal options at the vegan stations every day and making sure CDS workers are being trained on how to handle halal and special diet food to prevent incidents of cross-contamination. 

The University must do better to make dining halls and other food options more accessible for all students of varying faiths and dietary restrictions. If the campus is to be “well fed, happy and feeling at home,” students — regardless of dietary restrictions — must have a variety of healthy, palatable options.

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@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com