college students, food, & hospitality

A few weeks ago, I tweeted one simple question, asking how college ministers have dealt with students’ various dietary restrictions. Here’s what I knew about the topic before that:

  • We (Christians) haven’t seemed to catch on to the general trend toward hospitality in this area, despite the fact that we love fellowship around food
  • Campus ministry’s adaptation in this area seems pretty weak, too, even though food is an even bigger deal for our area of ministry than most areas

But because I tweeted, I got some help from four different people.

So for the second day in a row, I’m happy to post on something I personally don’t know much about! …because I believe this truly is a matter of hospitality – and even sometimes, as is pointed out in Andy’s response below, a matter of discipling students.

This is pretty helpful wisdom, and I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read it!

Bill Westfall, Impact Campus Ministries, Boise State

I discovered within the last 5 months that I have an issue with gluten. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to want to sit and EAT (eating is the greatest form of fellowship), but not to have any options available that won’t affect my body negatively. Many students just have to pass on the option to eat because of their dietary restrictions – leading them to at least feel ostracized from the group.

In the past, my wife and I have always been sensitive to the rising problem of food allergies among young people. We have always (in the 5 years we’ve been doing campus ministry at Boise State) had students in our fellowship with either gluten or dairy allergies – many times with both! So, we make sure to offer menu items for them.

I know the students really appreciate us thinking about their needs. And, I should tell you, it is really not all that hard to come up with a menu that is free of gluten/dairy, or to at least have options available for those who need them.

For whatever reason, food allergies are becoming more and more the norm in our culture. We need to take the necessary time to meet this growing need of students.

Ann Marie Leveille, wife of the college minister, Shades Mountain Independent Church, Birmingham, AL

Before Bible study, I make dinner, so I have increasingly had challenges with dietary needs. We don’t have any true vegans, which makes it a lot easier, but we do have several who won’t eat meat and one who doesn’t eat pork. I make some casseroles and pasta dishes, so those are easy to adjust. For the gluten free girl who is coming up to the college ministry next fall, she usually brings her own food or will eat early at home, so I don’t think this will be an issue.

As far as extending hospitality, I just keep it light and not make a big deal of dietary needs. I try to have stuff available for simple, quick things like grilled cheese or some cans of veggie soup, just in case.

In general, we hope our group is welcoming and accepting to students, no matter what their backgrounds are! The ones who are “veggies” are treated no differently by the others in the group, so that is also helpful.

Andy Campbell, Exec. Director of Small Groups at Fairfax Community Church, D.C. area
(until recently, Andy was College Small Groups Director at the same church, through the CCO)

Food is an integral part of hospitality and I’m glad to see you’re paying attention to students’ dietary needs – and in some case dietary choices.

For a lot of students, their diet is part of their identity, since it is something they express multiple times every day. I have had students that range from super picky eaters (she went on a trip to Morocco and packed all her own food) to vegans and vegetarians (like myself) who have moral or ethical reasons for why they eat like they do, to those with severe allergies to foods and digestive disorders like Crohn’s and Celiac, to students with eating disorders. Any of these students has a heightened attentiveness to what is (or in many cases is not) offered at fellowships, small groups, or student conferences.

In a lot of cases these students are used to fending for themselves and getting strange looks from their peers around the table. To different degrees they feel on the fringes of our food-obsessed culture.

Showing hospitality to these students means becoming aware of who these students are and what their needs are and then learning to incorporate these student’s dietary needs into our gatherings without drawing undue attention to them. Many times the shifts in what we choose to serve at these gatherings are subtle things that people without special dietary needs won’t even notice.

Along those same lines, we could all use to take another look at which events need to have food at all. We are so used to offering snacks at every event, we make it very difficult for people who are trying to battle an eating disorder or trying to pursue faithfulness in controlling their weight, etc., to make wise choices.

We also need to insert eating habits and choices into our dialogues about how we live out a Christian worldview. If we believe that following Christ changes everything, that should include how we eat, what we eat, how much we eat, why we eat, how eating can be redemptive, etc.

Sarah Koutz, Impact Campus Ministries, South Bend area

Sometimes it is just plain frustrating to eat anywhere other than your house because you have to ask a million questions and most people just don’t understand. I carry food almost everywhere I go if I know there is a chance I’ll be eating with someone. It is just a hassle to explain over and over to the same people.

I’ll admit I hate being asked the questions sometimes, but I appreciate that someone is taking the time to learn – so I don’t have to cart food with me every time we meet. The more you know about their diet, the more prepared you can be.

research: As soon as I find out a student has special diet requirements I find out as much as I can. What can and can’t they eat? What are their favorite foods? How do they prefer things cooked? Are there foods they love to eat but don’t get to have because they live in a dorm and can’t make it or it cost too much money because it is specially made? What are the default foods people make for that you get sick of eating over and over?

Take a little time to do some research. There are tons of sites online that have recipes, explain what to be cautious of, or have different tips for cooking for special diets. Do a Google search and read.

post ingredients: When you do cook for students, SAVE THE CONTAINERS of the original ingredients! I always save things on the counter until students have a chance to read it. If I’m bringing food to another location, I cut ingredient lists and bring them and the recipes with me.

help with cost: People with lots of food allergies may sometimes just prefer to bring their own food to gatherings or retreats. Everyone is different. I always try to help students cover that cost. It isn’t fair that every other student is paying for food and Sally pays that plus the additional food costs. It is bad enough they are college students who have higher grocery bills because of the allergy. So if we are going on a week long trip (and meals are included in the cost), I try to do one of two things:

  1. Discount the trip for the student who has to bring their own food, or
  2. Give the student a certain amount of money to pay for the food they’ll have to bring with them

After a single event, you can also send the leftovers home with the student! No one else will probably eat it, because it isn’t “normal.” Plus, what college student doesn’t get excited about having food given to them?

involve students: Have students with dietary restrictions help you plan menus for events.

think about preparation: Find out how sensitive the student is. Do you need to cook their food first, or can they be cooked at the same time with separate utensils?

think about taste: Find out where they shop for food and what their favorite brands are. For example some gluten free foods are horrible! I would never feed them to anyone – and a simple question can save that hassle.

Just like anything else, the more you get to know the student the easier it is. Sure, it takes some time, and you might screw up a few times, but showing you will take the initiative to actually listen and try to learn can make a huge impact.


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