Sho Takahashi

Breaking Bread: Grading the Nima College Experience with Allie

Allie Scheiber is a pre-med student at Stanford studying human biology and modern languages. Allie has been actively sharing her #nimatested photos on Instagram (@goseeglutenfree) and is one of our most active test contributors in the Nima app. We had a chance to meet Allie at the GFAF Expo in San Diego and found out that she goes to school near Nima HQ. We invited her over to our headquarters to talk about how she lives gluten-free at school and her new Nima college experience.

Nima College Experience Allie Vacation Photo

Hi Allie, Thanks for coming into the Nima headquarters today! Can you tell us little bit about your food identity?

Thanks for having me! I am strictly gluten-free due to my celiac disease, and I’ve been avoiding peanuts for the last couple of years due to my doctors suspecting that peanuts are the cause of my EoE [eosinophilic esophagitis].

Nima College Experience - Nima and cupcake photo

I definitely have a sweet tooth, which has helped me fall in love with baking and especially has motivated me to convert all of my old favorites (think churros, lemon cakes) into safe gluten-free alternatives! And, of course growing up with a Latina mom, meat is a huge component of our diets!

When were you diagnosed with celiac disease?

I was finally diagnosed in 2010 at 16 years old. After 16 years of symptoms – I had always felt sick with stomach issues and other symptoms (failure to thrive, jaundice, fatigue, peripheral neuropathy and loads of more complicated “fun” problems) – we finally figured out the main culprit.

You’re currently a college student at Stanford. What’s your gluten-free dining experience been like on campus?

My gluten-free dining experience on campus started out great but got messy fairly quickly. I lived in the dorms for the first three years of Stanford, where all the students eat at the buffet-style dining commons. Before starting my freshman year, my parents and I had contacted the dining managers at my dorm’s dining facility, and we seemed to have worked out a plan. I would pre-order my dinners and the chef would prepare them separately for me. This worked out okay, and I was thankful for the staff for when it worked. But by the middle of the year, I started to get sick more and more from the food and realized other celiac students who were eating at the buffets were almost always feeling sick.

“But by the middle of the year, I started to get sick more and more from the food and realized other celiac students who were eating at the buffets were almost always feeling sick.”

I was also the gluten-free intern at the time, which means I was the liaison between GF students and the nutritionist at the main dining commons. They had previously installed a “gluten-free microkitchen,” which was exciting, but was only available in one dining hall. It wasn’t so much a kitchen as it was a set of cupboards that were locked (only gluten-free students had key access) and it had a dedicated microwave, as well as a mini fridge. This was a step in the right direction, but when I became the GF Intern, I noticed the microkitchen only offered packaged goods that were great for snacks but not healthy or substantial enough for a full meal. I managed to get a freezer and toaster oven put in place so that we could supply frozen meals that were a little more substantial. But unfortunately, non-celiac gluten-free people were violating the rules by microwaving buffet food in the dedicated microwave or storing their own meals in the cupboard area, leading to instances of contamination. We rekeyed the system, only allowing access to students who had a doctor’s note confirming a celiac disease diagnosis.

I started hosting a pizza night once a week, where I would make personal pizzas in the dedicated toaster oven, and celiac students could come grab one for dinner. I also tried to get the chefs to batch-cook meals separately and store them in the fridge (like pasta dishes, salads, and grilled chicken), but unfortunately this only lasted a short while. My manager, who was the real cheerleader for this microkitchen and helped me a ton, ended up leaving Stanford. When I went abroad, the program lost some footing unfortunately. I made it my priority to get the NFCA to come out and train/certify at least one dining hall through their GREAT program, but Stanford was unwilling to budge for “budget” reasons, which was quite frustrating!

Did the cafeteria staff accommodate you in any other ways?

Only during those first few months of freshman year. After talking to the kitchen staff with my parents about cross contamination, the head chef had agreed to make custom gluten-free meals for me separately with cooking equipment that we had to provide, but he could only do dinners at a set time every night. He seemed to know a little bit about cross-contamination, but didn’t know about all of the hidden sources of gluten, like soy sauce. I was so appreciative for the effort he put forth, but as you can imagine, a lot of a college students’ schedule is variable, and a crucial component of bonding happens over meal times, especially spontaneous outings.  So this was difficult to adjust to, but I was happy to have seemingly safe food regardless. I got sick a few times even when the head chef cooked, and it started getting more and more inconsistent, where sometimes a different chef who wasn’t trained was making my meals, or the meals weren’t ready until 9 p.m., so it didn’t work out.

My amazingly generous mom started cooking my meals at home – we have a dedicated GF household – in Ohio and shipping me frozen meals on dry ice! She would ship me about 30 meals twice per quarter. And when I go home for breaks, I always bring back a suitcase-full of frozen meals. Surprisingly, they stay frozen for the whole flight. I keep them in my freezer in my dorm room and reheat them in my microwave. That way I’m ready to go and I can make a safe meal in two or three minutes, pack it up, then go meet up with friends at their dining halls. I don’t know what I would be doing without her!

Do you know any universities that are gluten-free friendly?

Yes! Cornell University just opened a dedicated gluten-free dining hall. They are definitely an example that other schools should be looking up to!

Ah yes, we have seen some #nimatested photos from @Amythefamilychef showing various meals from the Cornell dining commons. Hopefully more schools can follow that lead! Nima College Experience - Cornell Gluten Free Dining Switching gears, let’s talk about Nima. How did you first hear about Nima?

I heard about Nima about two years ago on the Internet. I can’t remember if it was an ad or article on Facebook.

How long have you had your Nima?

I pre-ordered it in the fall of 2015 and got it in November 2016. It was the best day ever.

How was life different for you before Nima?

For the first few years at Stanford, my friends and I might go out to dinner and a movie or dinner and drinks, but I would never plan on the movie or drinks part because I wasn’t sure if I was going to get sick or not after the dinner.

“When I eat out now, I have comfort and peace of mind. Nima has especially helped me enjoy my food more because if I get that smiley face, I can enjoy how it tastes instead of wondering if it’s going to make me feel terrible.”

I also love to travel, but not all of those language cards cover 100 percent of what the chefs need to know about, like cross contamination. Traveling to other countries where I had a language barrier was exciting but always stressful because I was never had full assurance when dining out.

Nima College Experience - Gluten Free Dinner at Little Beet photo What’s your life like now with Nima?

A lot more peaceful!  When I eat out now, I have comfort and peace of mind. Nima has especially helped me enjoy my food more because if I get that smiley face, I can enjoy how it tastes instead of wondering if it’s going to make me feel terrible.

Nima College Experience - Windstar Cruise photo

I recently went on a cruise with my family, and it was so helpful to have Nima so I could test everything I ate on board. There is a high risk of cross-contamination because the kitchens are so small, so I tested everything. Most of the nights, my food was safe but I had a “gluten found” pop up twice from a plain grilled steak. You never know! And without Nima, I would have eaten it assuming it was fine after talking to the chef about cross-contamination. But I would have gotten sick!

“Without Nima though, I would have boarded my cruise sick as a dog and would have been sick the entire time probably! I was so grateful for my little machine.”

One of my best “thank goodness for Nima moments” was in Miami. Our layover was there right before the cruise. We went to an all GF restaurant. The window said “100 percent gluten free!” Between my whole family, we had ordered a few salads, a sandwich, an acai bowl, and a chocolate shake. All of them came back with gluten! That’s crazy – it must have been a common ingredient. I told the manager and she said she would look into some of the spices that they use frequently because they buy them in bulk. Without Nima though, I would have boarded my cruise sick as a dog and would have been sick the entire time probably! I was so grateful for my little machine.

How do you carry your Nima?

I carry my Nima in a cosmetic pouch, because it fits the sensor and five to six capsules, which is nice to keep them all together. I like doing it that way because then I can put the pouch on a table at a restaurant and it’s discreet, because it just looks like a purse/bag. That’s why I love how sleek and compact Nima is – it’s not too distracting or obvious.

Nima College Experience - Nima carrying pouch photo What do your friends say about Nima?

My friends love it. When we go out to dinner, they watch that bar load just as eagerly as I do and then ask me “Did you get a smiley?” Of course, my family loves it too because they know it keeps me safe. We treat it like a fourth child/sibling! Anytime I go out to eat, they ask “Do you have Nima?” or “Don’t forget Nima!” I was once at a nicer dinner with some of my sorority sisters and the meal came back as having low gluten. I tried to be discreet about talking to the manager, etc., but when the new dish came out my friends kept saying “Test it again! Test it again!” I love how receptive everyone has been to it.

There have been a few times at restaurants where the chef comes out and doesn’t believe the results. So those are tricky to navigate. I love reading about how other Nima members handle those situations so I can gauge how to talk to the manager or chef in that kind of awkward moment. But for the most part, most of the chefs I have encountered find Nima very interesting. The chef on the cruise treated it like a friendly competition and was determined to get a smiley face track record, much to my benefit, of course!

What would you like to see next from Nima?

I would love to see some cards or information pamphlets that I could bring with me to restaurants to give out to managers or chefs when they don’t believe Nima is real or don’t understand it. A business card or something that explains what Nima is and how it works and with contact information for the Nima team would be so helpful. And then I could hand it over to them after our conversation, so they can hopefully learn more and be motivated to improve their cross-contamination practices.

An update on the app to remind me that I need to log my tests would be helpful, too!  Sometimes in restaurant settings, I’m focused on the results and then talking to the manager or eating the meal, so the other people I’m with don’t have to wait too long, and then I forget to log the results. And I think a rewards system would be awesome! I would love the opportunity to earn some free capsules or even another Nima after a few hundred tests so that I could run two samples at a time. For example, for every x amount of tests you log, you could earn a free capsule.

Any tips for other college students with gluten sensitivities or parents of soon to be college students with gluten sensitivities?

Reach out to the dining halls or residential dining managers well in advance to find a system that works for you. Don’t be afraid to be clear about what you need from them. The NFCA (National Foundation for Celiac Awareness) has great advice on starting college gluten-free. And be your own advocate! If the university is unable to meet your needs, don’t be afraid to ask how you can get involved or try to get them certified by the GREAT program.

Thank you for your time today Allie! We hope you enjoyed today’s Breaking Bread feature. If you have a Nima experience to share, we’d love to feature you next! Contact us with your stories at community@nimasensor.com.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
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