Going to college is an exciting time for any young student. But for those who’s daily health is dependent on a strict diet, it can be terrifying to consider living far away from their home kitchens. For such students, colleges have begun offering individualized dining services to make sure that they are healthy and fit to pursue their studies.
When a student with an autoimmune disorder was recently accepted to Dartmouth University, the school dining staff had to assure his family that he could safely eat on campus. “He had so many intolerances, he just drank supplement shakes,” says Elizabeth Rosenberger, R.D. with Dartmouth College Dining Services. “By the time he started with us, he was able to eat scrambled eggs cooked in butter, a plateful of rice and a baked potato every day for dinner.”
To receive his customized meal, the student emails a form the night before that lists his food and a dinner time, and a staff member responds to confirm that the order has been placed.
That system is also used by another Dartmouth student who has extensive food allergies that include soy, sesame, peanuts, tree nuts, mustard, beef, pork, seafood, rice, peas, beans and many other fruits and vegetables.
“For dinner, we decided to go with simple grilled chicken, which is always available, and plates full of salad,” Rosenberger says. “But salad dressing is a big concern because most contain a lot [of ingredients] he can’t tolerate.”
Rosenberger found a safe dressing but wasn’t able to buy it through any of the school’s grocery houses or suppliers. So instead, every few months, she buys cases of it at a local grocery store and keeps the inventory in her office. The student’s dining hall salad station always has one bottle available in a cooler. “He doesn’t have to ask for it,” Rosenberger says, “he just helps himself so he doesn’t feel awkward or stand out.”
Food allergies are on the rise, but there are also some who were simply born without the ability to process certain nutrients. Take for instance, a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) who has phenylketonuria (PKU), which means that she is unable to eat phenylalanine, an amino acid found in everything from meat to starch and vegetables.
“Something with one gram of protein will be too much for her,” says Erica Nehrling Meador, assistant director and dietitian of dining services, “so we serve her meals that use specialty protein alternatives, and she supplements with protein shakes that are specially formulated without any phenylalanine.”
At UIUC, all students with special diets must register with the school’s disability office, says Meador, in order to keep their medical information private. The disability staff can then also verify any medical documentation and accommodate students if there are any academic ramifications from allergies or intolerances.
“From there, I work with chefs to outline the products that the student can have and the students use our Inclusive Solutions website, a portal for special diet students,” Meador says. To order, the students log in and select a dining hall as well as a pick-up time, and an email is sent to the dining hall staff.
In the PKU student’s case, she can select from customizable entrees such as burritos, pizzas or salads made with specialty protein substitutes or from one of the 10 recipes the school chefs developed with her. “When she first came to us, she told us about a couple PKU cookbooks that she used back home,” Meador says, “so we bought them to use for meal ideas.”
“We feel strongly that any student with a food allergy or intolerance didn’t ask for their situation,” Meador continues, “so they deserve to have as equitable an experience as we can give them as their peers. This is their home. They need to be able to focus on their studies, their friends and their extracurriculars, and not have to worry about whether their food is safe to eat.”
To the end, UCIC has a remarkably robust special dietary needs program. “We have staff designated as our Dining Allergy Team that are the only ones allowed to prepare meals for Inclusive Solutions students,” Meador says. “All of our dining staff receive allergy training and annual refreshers, but the Dining Allergy Team receives additional training and must pass an examination.”
What’s more, the individualized meals are prepared in a designated area of the kitchen that has been assessed for low cross-contamination from, for instance, airborne flour particles. There is
also a specific warmer and refrigerator only used for allergy-free meals. Finally, the meals are sealed with plastic wrap and labeled.
“When the PKU student comes in, we unwrap it and it looks like every other students’ meal,” Meador says. “Some schools use a different color plate to help designate the special preparation, but we didn’t want her to feel different from other students.”