Students attending University of California San Diego can enroll in a reduced-allergy dining program that follows rigorous standards for food preparation and provides students with one-on-one consultations and meals created especially for them.
The Reduced Allergen Dining, or RAD, program serves dozens of UCSD students every year. Gloria Davis Browning, a culinary registered dietitian with Housing Dining Hospitality, oversees the program. “I work with students to assess their needs, provide them with resources and create an individualized plan for their unique dining requirements,” she says.
The program is vigorous. Procedures include meal preparation by food allergen specialists (chefs, sous chefs, or senior cooks who have undergone training), separate ingredient storage, and a meal prep “safe zone” that is clear of all contaminants and properly sanitized prior to meal preparation.
For each meal, three parties sign off: the food allergen specialist, a RAD manager, and the student. Managers also log each participant’s meals and meal times. To ensure safety, they conduct a monthly audit of measures such as sanitation and recipe compliance.
Photo: Gloria Davis Browning meets with students who are eligible for the RAD program individually and works with a team to design individualized meals for them.
Photo credit: UC San Diego
To qualify, a student needs to register with the university’s Office of Students with Disabilities (OSD) and provide medical paperwork confirming a diagnosis of a food allergy.
Once enrolled, Browning meets with the student individually and provides them with menus and information. Then the staff collects a full list of their food allergies and required accommodations. To make sure meals are tasty as well as safe, they survey students quarterly to ask about favorite and least-favorite offerings and to gather requests for upcoming menus.
Students are often surprised to receive so much personal attention.
Enrollment has steadily increased since the inception of the program until this year, when 73 students enrolled—an increase of about 20 students compared to the year before. Browning attributes the bump in participation to increased student awareness of the program. She also suspects that some students choose UCSD because of the RAD program.
“I have spoken to a number of parents and students this past month whose decision about which university to attend hinged heavily on this program making them feel like they would get a safe college dining experience,” she says, adding that current students report that the program “alleviated their fears.”
She adds that UCSD students can request that campus markets carry specific brand-name products, to make it easier for students with food allergies to navigate snack times and supplement meals.
Browning joined the UCSD staff in 2021, about seven years after the program’s inception. Prior to holding this position, she worked in K-12 districts where she observed school programs that provided reduced-allergen options for some students. The RAD program, however, is “one of the more robust programs I’ve seen.”
When the program first started, students could order custom meals to accommodate their allergies. As the number of participants grew, they standardized the program.
Originally called “Top 8,” after the top FDA-identified allergens, the program called attention to allergens in foods through eye-catching icons, which made eating simpler not only for students in the program but for all students.
After the FDA announced that it would recognize a ninth allergen, sesame, in 2023, UCSD revised the program to eliminate sesame—and changed its name.
The RAD staff are committed to helping students identify foods that are dangerous for them by highlighting common allergens, whether those allergens are formally recognized by the FDA or not. They’re discussing, for instance, the possibility of developing icons to identify coconut and sunflower—allergens a few students avoid.
Browning advises other colleges and universities that wish to start similar programs to begin by finding out who manages student accommodations. This is a must for ensuring proper documentation and record-keeping, student safety, and administrative compliance.
Then she suggests meeting with executive and culinary managers to inquire about accommodations. Ask what is possible in the environment as far as cost, ingredient procurement, kitchen facilities, food preparation spaces, and cross-contamination risk.
Once a team understands the possibilities—and limitations—of their situation, it’s time to create a reduced-allergen menu. This could be “as simple as making a few adjustments to existing menu items,” she says. Then, offer the new options as part of the regular menu and track how they perform.
Browning emphasizes that “there must be a clear and organized standard operating procedure accessible to all staff who serve the new menu, including standardized recipes, food allergy and food safety training performed by (or at least created by) professionals in each respective topic” along with detailed materials about the new menu that are available to everyone.