The Unforeseen Flaws of Uncommons

Since our move to Uncommons, Andover students and faculty have been treated to a new dining system and an assortment of foods. Undeniably, students are offered many more choices for meals. Between the new and improved sandwich station and the pasta stir-fry with different, more interesting ingredients, we are treated daily to a wide variety of food choices that most schools don’t offer. However, despite the many good things that are happening in Uncommons, I recently became aware of several flaws that have serious implications for certain people. Most people don’t need to worry very much about what’s going into their mouths. However, there is a large number of students who are vegetarians, have food allergies or eat a very specific diet for moral and religious purposes. Eating here is difficult for them, but is even more difficult for those of us who have more than one of those diets mentioned above. For a number of days, there was “Organic Cabot Cheese” offered at the organic bar, or what I believed was a fully organic bar. For those of us who eat only organic dairy products, this was a great change from the processed cheese presented at the sandwich bar. One day when I got there for sixth-period lunch, I watched an Uncommons worker put in a new, smooth, evenly cut, white cheese into the organic section. I tasted it, and, in my opinion, it shouldn’t have been allowed to pass as cheese, never mind organic. So I complained on a Fishing for Feedback card. Now, at the start of winter term, all Fishing for Feedbacks were posted, regardless of whether they were positive or negative. The response I got back said, “The cheese was always local, never necessarily organic. Sorry for the confusion.” In this situation, Uncommons presented incorrect information, which reflected on me, a person with strong beliefs about animal products. I’m a vegan at home and eat minimal dairy here, partially due to lactose intolerance, partially due to my feelings about animal rights, knowing how the cows are treated. Since this event, I have not eaten Uncommons dairy, because I can’t be certain what is and what is not organic. Case number two was extremely unsettling for me. I went to get myself a bowl of Perky O’s, soymilk and a banana. As I sat at my table and took a bite, I realized how similar tasting these “Perky O’s” were to “Cheerios.” “Huh?” I thought. After a few more bites I realized that there were in fact Cheerio’s mixed in with my Perky O’s. Just the few bites of wheat made the rest of the evening miserable for me, and I went to bed with a stomachache. Gluten intolerance, or the inability to eat wheat, is actually very common, but people experience it in different degrees. It affects me pretty mildly—traces of wheat won’t hurt me, and I will suffer from a stomachache for a few hours if I eat a piece of bread. However, some people, including one close friend of mine, will get extremely sick from even a trace of gluten. That means that these people with Celiac Disease or similar problems can’t toast gluten-free bread in the same toaster oven as bread made with gluten, can’t cook pasta in the same pans as wheat pasta and absolutely cannot eat Perky O’s out of the same container Cheerio’s are in without it being thoroughly washed. When I spoke with Sue, an Uncommons worker, she asked me what my question was and then if there was anything else I needed. I said, “Yes. Gluten-free bread.” She told me it wouldn’t be a problem and that they would get gluten-free bread within the next few days. A week later, gluten-free bread is still absent from the sandwich bread shelves. When I spoke with Mr. Scott Flanigan, the Director of Food Services at Uncommons, he explained that they did have gluten-free bread… in the freezer. He added that they would put a sign on the bread shelves, to inform students that gluten-free was still an option, upon request. Friday, I went to the “organic section” to grab an orange. The sign above the fruit read, “Locally grown.” Naturally, I was skeptical. “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Oranges grown in New England in the dead of winter.” Clearly, the oranges were not local. It’s 27 degrees outside. Come on, Uncommons. We go to Andover; we know oranges don’t grow around here in January. After another Fishing for Feedback card (my fourth), the sign was changed to “USDA organic oranges.” The distinction may seem insignificant, but to someone who only eats organic, it’s not. Yesterday I sat down with a salad and a bowl of soup that had been labeled, “Vegetarian Lentil.” I was eating it and thought that it tasted funny. After examining it, I extracted a chuck of meat. My friend tried it and confirmed that it was “definitely fish.” Not only was it unexpected, but it was also unacceptable. It was startling for me, but could also prove extremely dangerous to someone with seafood allergies. I’m sure it was a mistake, but those kind of mistakes can be life-threatening and simply can’t happen. As good as Uncommons is, it still presents some major problems for picky eaters. And when I say picky, I don’t mean “I don’t like beef or chicken or fish or fruit or anything green.” I mean people who have food allergies or special diets. Yes, things like being a vegetarian and eating primarily organic are choices, but they are not choices you should need to give up because your boarding school doesn’t offer enough options. Seriously, apricot chips, carrots and peanut butter cannot pass for three meals a day, seven days a week. We need organic meal options, not just snacks. And some of us don’t eat stir-fry because the tofu is cooked in the same pan as beef and animal-free products are handled with the same gloves as meat. That leaves us with the salad bar three meals a day, seven days a week. Salad’s healthy, and it can be delicious. But when you are having the exact same salad every meal, it’s boring and actually becomes unhealthy. Some great alternatives include fava beans, lentils, avocado, different types of olives, sugarless figs, brown rice (all the time), and tofu that’s marinated and cooked, not plain and raw. This list was passed on to Mr. Flanigan, who promised to look into it. Andover preaches diversity at every level. I think this means accepting that people have very different eating habits. We’re coming from all over the world and celebrating different religions, so we need to be aware of the diverse eating habits on campus and the food allergies people have. No one should fail a math test fifth period because they’re so hungry that they can’t concentrate. In this situation, the student should not think that there’s nothing they can eat in Uncommons, owing to allergies or a special diet. Nor should students feel like a fridge for the dorm room is necessary because the school doesn’t offer anything for them. Speaking with Aggie Kip, the school nutritionist, is helpful, but she can only do so much. What Andover feeds us is part of our tuition, and I think that we should be getting everything we’re paying for. I understand this may take a while. It may seem extreme and unnecessary to those who are lucky enough to tolerate anything put onto our plate, but there are plenty of us who will back up the argument for more options offered all the time. We can work on becoming a healthier community and making everyone happy with the food they’re getting. But until then, Uncommons, make sure the information you give us is accurate. Don’t label the oranges “locally grown,” if they’re not. Don’t casually label food “organic” or “vegetarian” without careful consideration because these words mean more than “fresh” and “natural” to many people. For some people, these words mean “cruelty-free” or “allergy-safe.” And next time, put the Cheerio’s in the right bin.