Dietary Restrictions and Dining Hall Diets: What Options Do Students Have?

The college diet is well known – french fries at 10am, not a vegetable or fruit in sight, coffee as water, one meal a day – that kind of thing. Everyone likes to joke about college student’s poor eating habits. But is the college diet a consequence of a student’s choices or is it what food options are made available? And what does dining on campus look like if you’re a student with a specialized diet?

Katie N., a sophomore with no specific dietary restrictions beyond her preferences, says she feels for students eating specific diets.

“I mean the food is dining hall food, I don’t always find stuff that I like, but at least I find stuff I can eat,” Katie says. “My roommate is vegan and there’s like nothing for her.” 

Anthony M., a senior at Pitt with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that presents as a severe gluten allergy, says being a student with a meal plan and dietary restrictions isn’t easy. 

“Yeah, I’ve had Celiac’s disease my whole life, so I know how to feed myself. Like I’m used to looking for the gluten free options,” says Anthony. “But it’s not easy when you have a meal plan and have to eat at certain places and those places don’t have food you can actually eat.”  

The Eatery at Towers has nine food stations for students to explore with the assumption being a student will be able to find something. But if you’re a student with one of the eight most common allergens, especially if that allergy is severe, the only station you can put your confidence in is Flourish, Pitt’s allergen-friendly station. 

What will you find at Flourish? When I walked into The Market at 2 p.m. last Thursday, they were offering sausage links, steamed broccoli, and roasted potatoes. This is the meal they will serve from noon (when breakfast turns into lunch) until The Eatery closes at 10 p.m. that night.

I notice that cubed honeydew and cantaloupe was offered as well. The section of Flourish offering a build-you-own salad bar was closed. I see a package of gluten-free buns and a loaf of gluten-free bread. As a frequent flier at Flourish, I was surprised I didn’t see pork as the protein for the day — it usually is. 

If you are a gluten-free student like I am, or, one who chooses not to eat meat (like I am not), you will not have anything substantial to eat beyond broccoli and potatoes on this Thursday at Flourish. Your options are to leave The Eatery to find other food options (either on-campus or off-campus) or to explore the other stations. 

At each station there are cards that will tell you what the food item is, what ingredients are in it, and any potential allergens. However, Michael DiBiasi, Pitt Eats’ Dietician, will be the first to tell you that at those stations, they can’t promise that cross-contamination won’t happen. For those with severe allergies, this risk is not worth it. 

Anthony M.’s advice for students with allergies is pretty straightforward — get past the meal plan as quickly as possible. 

“I would probably just say eat a lot of salads. Find stuff you like, sort of, and get used to it,” he suggests. “There aren’t very many options for us [fellow students with allergies]. I started eating well again when I moved off-campus and didn’t have a meal plan.”

For students with dietary restrictions, the dining hall diet doesn’t look very sustainable – options are limited. According to advice from students with allergies, your off-campus options are better.

A Pain au Chocolat Peregrination: The Beloved Croissants at Pitt

“Can I get a cold brew with a croissant?” “I’ll have a croissant and—” As I stand in line at the coffee stand in Towers, all I can think about at the moment was how if the two people in front of me each bought two croissants, I will have to choose between getting a cinnamon bun or a double chocolate chunk cookie. My phone suddenly buzzes, my roommate on the other line. “Where are you, I got us croissants.” A variation of a familiar line that started my obsession with the Pitt coffee stand croissants. 

“Here, I got you a pastry,” my roommate said back in the fall semester of this school year. She handed me a croissant in an unlabeled bag. Little did I know my life would change after that first bite. The crispy outer layer of the croissant instantly flaked open to an airy, chewy inside. I was immediately taken aback—this was the best croissant I’ve ever had. 

When my roommate mentioned she had gotten the croissant from the coffee stand in Towers, I was in denial. Polluted with the conventional idea of how mundane dining hall food was, I was not sure if this croissant was truly delicious or that my palette was just inexperienced. I quickly learned that the former was the correct answer. Anytime I stopped by the stand in Towers after my 2 p.m. class, the croissants were gone. So I went earlier, around 11 a.m.— there were two left. I realized that these croissants were in high demand.

These coffee stands can be spotted throughout campus behind different names. They are located in the lobby of Litchfield Towers (Campus Coffee & Tea); the first floor of Victoria Hall (Café Victoria), Chevron Science Center (Bunsen Brewer); and inside the Market to Go in Sutherland (Campus Coffee & Tea) to name the most popular. At first glance, the coffee stands look like the usual ones, serving varieties of coffees, teas, and pastries. Frequent customers know out of the pastry options, there is a hidden gem: the croissants. You can choose from the original croissant or the pain au chocolat, which is equally if not better. One bite, and you will become one of the cult followers. 

 “On Sundays, they sell first out of everything we usually sell, like within an hour and a half” says Kyrie Allshouse, a worker at Campus Coffee & Tea in Towers.

Allshouse is not a student at Pitt but works at the stand most days. She is part of a greater group of baristas who can whip up a coffee to your liking and become a familiar face on campus. Allshouse was working alongside Pitt student, Bri Kidd, when I spoke to them. Kidd is a junior majoring in political science. Both Allshouse and Kidd were delighted to talk about the stand’s croissants; however when asked if they had tried them, Allshouse replied that they were her favorite while Kidd admitted she actually disliked croissants. 

While I was interviewing Allshouse and Kidd, I met Grace Anagnost, a freshman nursing major who had just purchased a croissant. 

“I always get a croissant here, unless sometimes I get a bagel.” Anagnost raved, “But it’s either this [croissant] or the chocolate croissant, I have literally never tried anything else, it’s literally so good.”

Anagnost says that her schedule includes going to the stands at least three times a week for the croissants and if they are sold out in Towers, she makes sure to get one from Victoria Hall where her nursing classes are taken. 

Gail, who chose not to give her last name, a barista at the Victoria Hall stand had more insight about the croissants. I spoke to Gail during one of the slower periods of the stand where she was deep into a romance novel. For Gail, being a barista is busy but rewarding. 

“You get to help the students out. Get your americanos or lattes…they’re always dragging in so you need the cafe.” 

One of her most memorable barista experiences was a student ordering two chocolate croissants and two shots of espresso first thing in the morning during finals week. Gail’s favorite pastry at the stand are the chocolate croissants, she claims that they are addicting. 

Back in the patio of our dorm building, my roommate and I sit outside and bite into the croissants. The flaky outer layer of the croissant makes a mess on our laps but never fails to satisfy. The perfect addition to a regular school day. 

The campus coffee stands are needed. The baristas provide a sense of familiarity and routine when students and faculty are bogged down with deadlines. They become friends that you see on a weekly basis. The stands are part of the greater system that runs the university. Whether you are in upper campus heading to your chemistry lab or a freshman living in lower campus, you now know of this secret. Who knew that it is a crescent shaped pastry.