The US Open Must Better Accommodate Food Allergies & Intolerances including Celiac Disease
It’s About Equality – The USTA’s Diversity & Inclusion Umbrella Should Be Extended at the US Open to Offer a Gluten Free Stand for Fans with Celiac Disease
For the last twenty plus years, one of our family’s annual traditions to mark the end of Summer has been attending the US Open. Up until this year, we took our food freedom for granted – we enjoyed our food privilege of being able to eat whatever and wherever we wanted, including at the US Open.
It was all part of the fan experience at the US Open’s food village, concessions and restaurants. That all changed in 2019 when we realized that the US Open is not very inclusive and Celiac friendly in terms of providing Gluten Free (GF) food accommodations for 1% of the population who suffer from Celiac Disease, which amounts to about 3 million Americans, including my 6 year old son.
Since my son received his life changing diagnosis last year, my family has embraced its new normal, whereby the only treatment for Celiac is a medically required, lifelong strict adherence to a Gluten Free diet, with no exceptions. We still travel and eat out, but life with Celiac requires constant planning and causes people and caretakers of those with Celiac anxiety about how to visit places such as the US Open for hours on end without having some viable and safe food options available and accessible for our 6 year old. In other words, we no longer can enjoy the spontaneity of any food throughout day to day life and at special occasions so accommodations for this dietary disability are required. The US Open claims “you’ll be free to roam around the grounds without ever going hungry.” Not so for those with Celiac Disease!
This is 2019, and this is New York. It is not hard to look around and see that there are great food service operator and sporting event models with Celiac friendly Gluten Free stands and various food offerings at Citi Field, Madison Square Garden, MetLife Stadium, Yankee Stadium, etc. The New York Yankees publish a comprehensive Dining Guide that you can download that allows you to plan your visit in advance for all sorts of food options and accommodations, including Gluten Free requirements.
However, the US Open does not offer a dedicated Gluten Free stand with a variety of fan favorite choices (i.e., hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches, pizza, pretzels, cookies, ice cream, beer, chips, etc.). The US Open does not offer any information on its Web site for people who suffer from food allergies and intolerances so that they can plan their fan experience in advance.
Instead, the US Open offers a limited number of Gluten Free items (mushroom tacos, poke bowl, oysters, some salads), none of which are kid friendly. Also, these items are hidden in plain sight since one needs to visit each stand and restaurant, look at the menu, wait in long lines, and then ask questions to workers who do not appear trained in Celiac safe food preparation. Moreover, it appears that these GF items are prepared at stands that also offer Gluten containing foods so the risk for cross contact is high. The fact that nothing appears on the US Open Web site about Gluten Free food options, coupled with the limited amount of offerings suggest that any Gluten Free option is offered for those people who elect a Gluten Free lifestyle as opposed to those with Celiac who medically require a strict Gluten Free diet.
For Celiac patients and their families, it is not just about GF ingredients because it involves the constant concern over cross contact with the preparation and service of food as well as ingredients therein. It’s a disease, not a diet!
With regard to having a dedicated Gluten Free stand at the US Open, the USTA has a great model to emulate in its Kosher Grill which is a dedicated area offering comparable kosher food items to what is sold elsewhere at the US Open. According to Jonathan Katz who owns the Kosher Grill at the US Open, “People from all over the world buy kosher hot dogs, people who don’t even know what kosher is want kosher.” In other words, a Gluten Free stand will serve those who require a GF diet and those who simply want GF food choices.
Just like US Open fans do not ask for guarantees against food poisoning with salmonella for example, we do not ask for guarantees that foods are Celiac safe. However, we do ask that comparable fan favorite foods are Gluten Free in terms of ingredients and are cooked, prepared and served using industry best practice training and food safety processes to prevent foodborne illness and cross contact with Gluten.
Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are stated strategic priorities for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and part of their core values. It is one of the USTA’s strengths. The USTA claims that diversity allows the USTA to touch all of America, and inclusion allows all of America to touch the USTA, including in theory at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where the US Open is held. However, that is not true for those who suffer from Gluten Intolerance. The USTA operates the US Open and touts it as the “crown jewel of the professional game” and the “greatest event in the world.”
On August 28, 2019, the USTA hosted the second annual USTA “D&I Download” at the US Open that focused on the role of supplier diversity in strengthening community engagement efforts, and which followed up on last year’s theme focused on the right thing to do for business. Gordon Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the USTA has said that,
“We are fortunate to be able to utilize the great stage of the US Open for” shining “a spotlight on the subject of diversity and inclusion, its importance to all of our respective businesses, and its importance in the way that we connect with the communities that support us.”
To that end, it’s the right thing to do for the USTA and its community engagement efforts to make changes to the US Open’s food offerings and accommodate those with food allergies and intolerances. It is about equality! In addition to the 3 million Americans with Celiac, it is estimated that non-Celiac Gluten sensitivity impacts another 20 million Americans.
“Beginning on Aug. 26, tennis fans from all over the world will descend upon the grounds of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships to watch elite players and exciting matches. But they also are coming to eat. That’s because the grand slam tournament in Queens, N.Y. is known for offering some of the best and most diverse dining options in all of sports.”
Notably, the article was entitled, “Everything You Should Eat and Drink at the 2019 U.S. Open Tennis Championships“, and tellingly the article included nothing for those requiring Gluten Free foods.
The USTA has approximately 700,000 members paying annual dues including our family of four. Upwards of 7% of the general population have Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, and by estimate, there are about 50,000 USTA Members suffer from Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Another way to look at this is that about 50,000 fans who attend the US Open each year suffer from Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.
It has also been reported that strict Gluten Free diets are practiced by some of the world’s top tennis players such as Novak Djokovic, Sabine Lisicki, Andy Murray, Martina Navratilova, etc. However, none of those players likely had to rely on the Gluten Free choices at the Food Village and other general public concessions.
Food allergies and intolerances such as Celiac fall into the USDA’s definition of Food Insecurity,
“Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”
In addition to the nutritional aspects of eating (including eating at home, at school, in restaurants), there is the all-important social aspect of eating and inclusion which is more challenging for those with food allergies and intolerances, including those with Celiac Disease, because we must worry about the limited or uncertain availability of safe foods, free of cross-contact and nutritionally adequate foods, including in events like the US Open where food is a focal point. It’s time for the USTA’s senior leadership to check their food privilege. The US Open must widen its diversity and inclusion umbrella for those who suffer from food allergies and intolerances. One way to quickly evaluate the existing fan experience gap is for the USTA to reflect on whether the Gluten Free menu items offered today would be adequate if those choices alone represented the entire menu of items offered to the general public. Imagine if the 225,000 hamburgers and hot dogs and 9,000 pounds of lobster was no longer served?
What would the overall fan reaction and revenue reduction be if the total array of food choices at the US Open was limited to a couple of salads, oysters, poke bowls, etc.? The answer is clear and there is no analysis needed, especially when it comes to the journey for equality!
In 2020, it is time for the US Open to provide meaningful accommodations for those with food allergies and intolerances. This includes having a dedicated Gluten Free stand that offers a variety of Celiac safe Gluten Free choices comparable to its other varied fan favorite menu items including hot dogs, burgers, sandwiches, pizza, pretzels, cookies, ice cream, beer, chips, etc. Additionally, the US Open should post information to its’ Web site to allow people with Celiac to help plan their fan experience in advance.
Our 2019 US Open was filled with lots of great tennis, but our US Open fan experience with Gluten Free food options was utterly lacking! After I stood line to get a Poke Bowl, I was informed that the GF option was not being offered at the time of my visit. Fortunately, we wound up bringing a small cooler (that is allowed as per US Open security requirements and not one of the many “prohibited items“) with us with some food for our son, but carrying around a cooler on a hot day when we are staying at a hotel and on the go from 9AM-8PM presents many other challenges, including that the food we can carry is limited in quantity and it gets condensation on it — no one likes soggy sandwiches.
Jon Bari is President of The Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia; Former Member of the Board of Directors, United States Tennis Association (USTA) Middle States Section (Chair, Audit Committee); and Father of a 1st Grade student with Celiac Disease.