OPINION: For students with dietary restrictions, Pomona’s ultimate meal plan is ableist

“Pomona’s decision to require every on-campus student to join the unlimited meal plan means I’m trapped in a framework that doesn’t treat students like me with respect,” writes Seohyeon Lee PO ’25.(Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

I have dietary restrictions. If I bite into food that has seasoning I can’t eat, my body will start trembling so hard that my laptop on the dining hall table will shake. Then, I won’t be able to think clearly for several hours. Nobody deserves to live in fear of this experience — especially when it takes copious amounts of time and energy away from academic life.

Pomona College’s dining halls are turning my attempt to find safe food into an agonizing quest. If I had the option, I would’ve dropped to a smaller meal plan so I wouldn’t have to pay for a dining hall I can’t take advantage of. However, the Pomona administration’s decision to require every on-campus student to join the unlimited meal plan means I’m trapped in a framework that doesn’t treat students like me with respect.

To begin, the standards for food accommodations at Pomona are egregiously low, which reveals an ableist approach that suggests students with dietary restrictions should be content with paying the same price for a substandard experience. While accommodations technically provide access to safe food, they fail on equal access. Students with dietary restrictions have no choice but to travel to a different dining hall and/or face extremely limited options to eat safely, even with accommodations. 

For instance, Pomona has no dedicated allergen-free station open when Frank Dining Hall — the only Pomona dining hall with a dedicated allergen-free station — is closed during breakfasts, Fridays and Saturdays. Frary advertises “allergen-free” food in to-go coolers, but in reality the cooler has very few, if any, allergen-free options, which clearly cannot accommodate the wide range of dietary restrictions students have. Oldenborg has absolutely no allergen-free facility. If a student can’t eat Oldenborg food because of dietary restrictions, they are compelled to bring food from a different dining hall in order to participate in language tables. 

Moreover, the dining halls are not taking adequate precautions against cross-contamination, making them an unsafe environment for students with dietary restrictions. While other 5C dining halls have allergen-free stations where a staff member distributes food onto a separate plate, Frank’s allergen-free station allows students to get food onto a used plate that can cause cross-contamination. Food is often mislabeled or not labeled at all, which leads students to eat allergy-provoking food without knowing beforehand. 

On top of this, Pomona’s themed meals are inaccessible because they rarely have allergen-free options. Considering that Pomona dining halls are willing to add attractive but inessential items like lobster and chocolate fountains to their menu, they evidently have the resources to improve accommodations essential to provide a safe eating environment. 

The lack of medical exemptions for the unlimited meal plan is exacerbating the issues I listed above. When I inquired about getting released from the meal plan, I was told that students were not able to be released from the meal plan since Pomona would provide accommodations for students with dietary restrictions. This message falsely implies that accommodations are a complete replacement of students’ free choice over managing their dietary restrictions. 

Accommodations inevitably undermine students’ right to address their health needs on their own terms. Without medical exemptions, students with dietary restrictions have no choice but to fight for their rights in an accommodation process that doesn’t treat them with human respect. Medical exemptions from the meal plan must be available for students who need additional support but don’t find their current accommodations helpful or cannot gain accommodations under the current system.  

Pomona dining implemented a supplementary grocery program for students it cannot accommodate, but this program is not a sound alternative to students’ free choice. In the supplemental grocery program, students select groceries from a list compiled by Pomona’s nutritionist and pick them up from the dining halls at designated hours. However, it is often more straightforward and convenient for students to buy groceries themselves outside the meal plan. Instead of the supplemental meal plan, the Accessibility Office should approve additional “flex dollars” for students with dietary restrictions to purchase groceries at the Coop Store or compensate part of the meal plan cost so that students can pursue options that work best for themselves. 

Earlier this semester, I started a petition to make the Ultimate Meal Plan optional, which gained over 100 signatures on campus. As the responses show, there is significant opposition to the mandatory unlimited meal plan among Pomona students. However, the Pomona administration has continued to defend the meal plan without acknowledging how it fails students with dietary restrictions.

In a TSL article about accessibility concerns about the ultimate meal plan, Dean Avis Hinkson said that “[t]he College remains committed to addressing food insecurity, and the ultimate meal plan has met that goal.” Her message implies that Pomona’s focus on addressing food insecurity justifies its disregard of students with dietary restrictions. This rhetoric pits two minority groups — students with dietary restrictions and low-income students — against each other. 

Dean Hinkson added that Pomona welcomes student input “as we continue to fine tune our meal plan.” The input of students with dietary restrictions like me, however, did not feel welcome. When I brought up the aforementioned suggestions to Pomona dining and the Accessibility Resources and Services office, they were brushed off as unrealistic, if not ignored altogether. Several other students spoke in their petition responses about similar experiences. 

Bottom line: Pomona is imposing an ableist meal plan on students with dietary restrictions. No student should be forced to waste time and energy to find safe food and fight for basic respect at Pomona. Medical exemptions to the ultimate meal plan must become available. For those who stay on the meal plan, accommodations should ensure equal access and be receptive to students’ personal decisions. 

Guest Writer Seohyeon Lee PO ’25 is finding language to express thoughts clotted in her/their head. She/they believes college is the best time to learn how to sprout meaningful changes from her/their frustrations.

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