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Student ER visit reveals accommodations challenges

Evan Hein
Bella Villareal `26 cooks at Grinnellians Who Are Ready to Cook (GWARC) house, where she has found community.

Shortly after entering the Dining Hall on the second day of New Student Orientation, Bella Villarreal `26 realized she was having difficulty breathing. 

“I went outside, and I thought that it would be fine and it was getting better,” Villarreal said. “Someone sat behind me, and they had shrimp and it got much worse.” 

She said her friend called Grinnell Campus Safety, who called an ambulance. After this incident where Villarreal almost had to go to the hospital, Villarreal said that she ended up visiting the ER multiple times during that semester after experiencing other reactions.

Villarreal, who was later diagnosed with an airborne shellfish allergy, said she was able to obtain an accommodation through Disability Services to go off the meal plan. However, given the significant amount of time and cost the accommodation process required, Villareal said she was worried that those in need of accommodations may see the process as too burdensome to undertake.

Her concern came in the wake of the Grinnell administration’s decision to require all students to purchase a meal plan for the 2024-2025 academic school year. This requirement did not previously extend to off-campus students. 

Mattia Wells, director of strategic communications and media relations for Grinnell College, wrote in an email to The S&B in collaboration with Autumn Wilke, associate chief diversity office for disability resources, that there is an interactive process in place for students with a disability, such as a dietary restriction, to obtain accommodations. 

Wells wrote that the accommodation process typically takes place after students have provided “medical or diagnostic information from a qualified professional” demonstrating that they have a disability. Wells wrote that accommodations are typically implemented within two weeks or fewer of the student providing the necessary documentation. 

Villarreal said she reached out to Disability Services. She said they told her they could not grant an accommodation until she had documentation of her allergy. She also said that she was not able to get an appointment until about a month later. 

“I was having my friends get ‘to-go’ boxes, I was eating outside,” Villarreal said. A month later, she said she traveled to Iowa City to get a blood test done. 

“This was a test that Grinnell was basically requiring me to take and it was kind of hard because I had to see a specialist,” Villarreal said. “I had to pay to get the transportation to Iowa City … I had to leave in the middle of a school day.” 

This was a test that Grinnell was basically requiring me to take and it was kind of hard because I had to see a specialist. I had to pay to get the transportation to Iowa City … I had to leave in the middle of a school day.

— Bella Villarreal `26

Villarreal noted that she could not have asked her family, who live in Texas, for help with transportation.  “I was kind of on my own,” Villarreal said. 

Wells wrote that Student Health and Wellness (SHAW) can help coordinate rides and appointments for students to see an out-of-town provider. “They [students] would be responsible for payment, just as they would for any other medical appointment,” Wells wrote. Wells also noted that students may apply for emergency funds if they are in need, but there is no guarantee of funds. 

After receiving formal documentation from a specialist, Villarreal said she was granted an accommodation to go off the meal plan. This was roughly a month and a half after her initial allergic reaction and ambulance ride. 

However, she said she was still having allergic reactions in Rose Hall, where she lived, because other students were cooking shellfish in the kitchens. 

“We made signs and put up signs in the dorm, but Grinnell wouldn’t do that,” said Villarreal. The administration declined to put up signs themselves and told Villarreal they “can’t tell people what to eat in the dorms, basically,” said Villarreal.

Villarreal said she ended up in the emergency room a second time in October 2022 after having another serious reaction in her dorm hall. She said that this incident prevented her from doing lighting for a theater performance as she ended up missing rehearsals. 

After this reaction, the College tried different solutions, including giving Villareal her own kitchen — first in Loose Hall and then in Rose Hall. She said that this still did not stop the allergic reactions, because students were still able to cook food in their own personal microwaves. 

“Every once in a while, someone would microwave something and I’d be like, ‘can’t go outside. Gotta hide,’” Villarreal said. 

I was kind of on my own.

— Bella Villarreal `26

For the 2023-2024 academic year, Villarreal — after a suggestion from Disability Services — decided to apply to create a project house that would be tailored to people with dietary restrictions — Grinnellians Who Are Ready to Cook (GWARC) house. 

Villareal noted that in her first year at the College, she was the only freshman she knew who was off the meal plan, which made it difficult to socialize. Now, she said she has built a community with others who live in GWARC House.

“Being able to build our own community around food and being able to make food that works for our bodies — this is a success for us,” Villarreal said. “It has improved our quality of life here at the College.” She said that the new apartment-style housing at Renfrow Hall, which will open in fall 2024, could be an opportunity for Grinnell College to expand on GWARC’s success. 

Irish Stoll `26, who also lives in GWARC House, echoed Villarreal’s sentiment. “It’s an experiment that is working, and rather than shying away from that, we should really lean into it while we have the momentum going,” Stoll said. 

Villarreal and other members of GWARC said they are concerned that the requirement to obtain an accommodation will make it more difficult for students with dietary restrictions to partake in communities like theirs. 

“I think if they’re going to require everybody to be on a meal plan, the process for getting off the meal plan needs to be easier,” Villarreal said. She noted that she was able to obtain an accommodation because of the severity of her allergy, but that others may not be able to. 

“There are people like my friend Karima, who spent the whole year on the meal plan eating in the Dining Hall and was in pain all the time. And that is just as severe. They’re severe in different ways,” Villarreal said. 

Villareal faced severe allergic reactions while awaiting a meal plan accommodation from Dining Services. (Evan Hein)

Karima Rostom `26, who also lives in GWARC House, told The S&B that she was often late to her 8 a.m. class last year because of pain and nausea caused by eating food from the Dining Hall. 

Rostom said there were barriers preventing her from getting a formal diagnosis. “It’s something that’s costing me time and money to prove something that I already know,” Rostom said. “I don’t have the money to get diagnosed with those things.”

Rostom said she chose to live in GWARC House her second year, where she would not be required to be on a meal plan, “rather than trying to go through a formal process that I knew would be time-consuming and expensive.” 

Germaine Gross, vice president for finance and treasurer at Grinnell College, wrote in an email to The S&B that the new “unlimited meal plan” option offered next year will be covered by financial aid for high-need students. However, Rostom said she is concerned that this will mean she cannot buy her own groceries anymore if she cannot afford to get documentation for an accommodation. 

“Some students are high need enough that they get a credit from the College if they’re not on a meal plan,” Rostom said. “And that credit is intended to and does help with things like groceries, things like living costs. And if that money is going towards foods that I can’t eat, then now I am losing the money that I have to spend on food and also the money that the College would have given me for food.”

About half of Grinnell College’s peer institutions require all students to be on some sort of meal plan. However, Villarreal said that other colleges have the ability to provide more options for students. She spent the summer at Bryn Mawr College doing research and said that, unlike Grinnell College, they have multiple dining halls as well as a completely gluten-free room to avoid cross-contamination. 

“It’s not to say that we need to do exactly that or that we have the facilities to do exactly that,” Villarreal said. “It’s just to say that there are colleges doing better than us, and we should be striving to do better.”

Correction 2/19/24 10:16 AM – A quote was clarified to reflect that students, not SHAW, are responsible for the payment of rides to see out of town providers.

Correction 2/19/24 2:22 PM – This story was clarified to reflect that Villarreal said that she did not need to go to the hospital after the first reaction, but on different occasions later in the semester. 

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About the Contributors
Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans, Opinions Editor
Sarah is a second year from Massachusetts studying political science and English. She adores Snoopy, Allison Ponthier’s music and fried pickles. The real reason she came to Grinnell was for the sunsets.
Evan Hein, Staff Photographer
Evan is a second-year psychology major from Kansas City, Kansas. He once had to ask his friends to describe him in one word for a psych project. 33% of the twenty-five descriptive responses were the word “ginger,” followed by a small chortle.
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    GWARC supporterFeb 19, 2024 at 5:37 pm

    The students of GWARC house have created something amazing–both for their residents, and for other community members that they welcome into their home for campus events. I hope that the school will make the accommodations that they need!