(BASIL JOHN / THE STATESMAN)
Cross-contamination at campus dining establishments is an issue that can be potentially dangerous. (BASIL JOHN / THE STATESMAN)

If you were ever adventurous enough to walk a mile in a vegetarian’s shoes at Stony Brook, you would immediately realize that eating out on campus is a lot like suffering through a game of “Where’s Waldo?” The other day, I visited the SAC to quickly conjure up a salad in the 30 minutes I had before my chemistry class. Once I reached the salad bar, all of my options were overwhelmingly laid out in front of me. There were as many toppings and veggies as figures scrambled into one page of “Waldo.” I grabbed a plastic tray while I reached for the tongs, and so, my game began.

I scanned the contents of each tub, focusing my keen eyes to be wary of anything that has been charred, broiled, fried, seared, poached, braised, or barbecued. When I thought that I was almost done playing this unbearable version of a favorite childhood game, I noticed something strange in the container holding pasta. There it was, some bits of bacon that flew from a bowl nearby right into the crevices of the penne, escaping the attention of any food service workers. Naturally, I was upset—I wanted something more substantial to supplement my otherwise bland salad consisting of lettuce and three slices of tomato. Instead, I just stood there in disappointment before I proceeded to pay and leave my salad that would only keep me satiated for a few minutes or so.

This is only one minor case of the many instances of cross-contamination that occurs at Stony Brook’s eating establishments. I have heard stories ranging from veggie burgers sharing grills with beef patties to utensils used to scoop meat also being used to pluck vegetables. While some refuse to acknowledge the severity of the issue of cross-contamination, I take this issue to heart. At a large university like Stony Brook, many of us, students and faculty members, are expected to follow religiously-based dietary restrictions or have certain food allergies. Yet everyone is expected to be served by only five of the dining venues that Stony Brook has to offer. Thus, our choices are tragically limited. The last thing we need is someone to fumble an order and taint a meal that will disagree with our selective diets.

The dining facilities on campus have procedures in place when vegetarian students approach their respective stations and will, in most cases, switch their gloves, change their knives and clean their cutting boards—many students, however, are not aware that they need to make their vegetarianism explicitly clear when interacting with food service workers. Many students are under the impression that merely asking for a bean burrito without any meat constitutes the enforcement of vegetarian protocols, but it does not. The university must more efficiently push the information about these procedures to the student body.

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Food service workers need to understand the importance of their jobs. They are the ones who handle what we are fed. We trust them to be hygienic, courteous and most importantly, respectful of our requests. That is why cross-contamination is simply unacceptable. The lack of care food service workers provide to our food sends a similarly sinister message of how workers think of their customers.

But before I go on blaming the service, I want to share my perspective from behind the counter of the struggles that food service workers endure while preventing cross-contamination. I spent the last summer working as an employee at a Subway restaurant. With a storm of orders to fill during lunch hour in downtown Manhattan, cross-contamination is inevitable. As I spent the next ten minutes arranging a sandwich with “tomatoes placed in zig-zag formation” and “cheese cut into one-fourths” while simultaneously explaining why a foot long costs $5.44 instead of $5 to an irked customer for the thousandth time, a few things jumped from here to there during all the commotion. Nevertheless, I was still mindful of my customers.

Whenever a vegetarian customer stepped in, I replaced my gloves, cleaned the cutting board and washed the knives before making his/her food. These subtle acts of consideration made all the difference, and it was easy to see through the customers’ delighted faces (and generous tips).

My point is that cross-contamination is a pressing matter that requires attention from the dining facilities at Stony Brook. Generally speaking, any Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Jain person, or person with allergies, is vulnerable to consequences brought on by consuming foods that desecrate their beliefs or harm their health. Aside from supervising the production of food, workers need to place an equal emphasis on overseeing how that food is sent to customers. However, no one can help when things slip through the cracks of the food industry.

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That is why I am willing to turn the other cheek if I am ever victim to cross-contamination. I’m not a vegetarian to procure the label of a someone going against the norm who is strong-willed enough to admit that she has never sunk her teeth into a hamburger and never will. Vegetarianism is my lifestyle that is fostered by my religious and ethical beliefs of respecting living things. Thus, it is only sensible that I not hold any grudges against anyone due to cross-contamination, as long as it is unintentional. And with this compassionate mentality, I urge others in a similar situation as me to do the same.

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