Heading off to college can come with a lot of big questions. For students with food allergies, wondering whether they’ll be able to find clean, safe food shouldn’t be one of them. That’s why Vanderbilt University has made access to allergen-friendly food a top priority in recent years.
“We want all students to feel comfortable and at home. Food allergies are a big worry for students and their parents, so it was important for us to have a well-rounded program,” says Vanderbilt Campus Dining registered dietician Emily Suttle, RD, LDN.
In 2019, Vanderbilt opened 2301, a dining hall that’s certified free of the top 8 most common food allergens - peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. “When we converted the space over from a pizza and salad concept, we saw a 36% increase in sales,” Suttle says. The menu is simple, skewing towards healthy, buildable options like saute bowls, salads and smoothies, as well as an oatmeal bar for breakfast.
“A lot of dishes are based on brown rice with sauces that can be added in. There are protein options like chicken or steak, or black beans or chickpeas for students looking for plant-based,” Suttle explains. “We really have to strip it down to the basics of starch, clean-cooked protein, and veggies.” There are still options to indulge though, including gluten-free chicken tenders, fries, cupcakes, and packaged baked goods from brands like Enjoy Life. “Making that variety available is really important,” Suttle says.
2301 is open to any student, and given its popularity, Suttle suspects that many of the customers are simply those looking for food that’s fresh, clean, and simple. “There’s always a line. Students like being able to customize.”
Students with documented life-threatening allergies or medical dietary restrictions can also take advantage of orderIT, Vanderbilt’s allergy-safe mobile ordering program. Food is prepped in Kissam Kitchen, a designated allergen-safe space that’s certified gluten-free. “The meal process is kept completely separate, from storage of ingredients, to the dish room, to the washing and sanitizing of our dishes,” Suttle explains.
Only around .01% of Vanderbilt’s students participate in orderIT. But having a dedicated ordering app for this population is vital for ensuring students with custom orders can be served safely and in a timely manner. “A lot of universities use a Google form. But this helps us offer more customization, and we can gather data that helps us plan staffing models for peak times,” Suttle says. Order through the app also creates documentation in the event that a student were to experience an allergic reaction, she points out.
Cooks and managers working in 2301 and Kassam Kitchen undergo specialized training in food allergy safety. The four-hour certification program, called AllerTrain U, teaches staff about cross contact precautions, washing and sanitizing protocol, and how to respond in the event of a life-threatening allergic reaction. It ends in a certification exam. The program is led by Suttle, who has undergone more in-depth training in order to teach the class. Suttle also plays an outsize role in developing the allergy-certified menu items. “We have to make sure we source the ingredient, talk with students to see about the things they want on the menu, and add my perspective of making sure there’s balance,” she says.
AllerTrain U was created by Kitchens with Confidence, an independent food allergy accreditation and certification entity that works with foodservice operations like college dining facilities and restaurants. Vanderbilt partnered with the organization for help in developing allergy-friendly menus and sourcing allergy-safe products that they could obtain through their vendors. “Our partnership with Kitchens with Confidence has made the allergy program as stress-free as possible,” Suttle says. “I’m definitely grateful for their knowledge and wisdom. They’ll help us brainstorm ideas, and they’ll investigate products and reach out to companies to determine if something is safe.”
Vanderbilt’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In June, it was named the Best Overall Food Allergy Champion for Universities in the fifth annual MenuTrinfo Allergy Awards, which has honored restaurants and universities nationwide deemed to go above and beyond meeting the needs of diners with food allergies. (MenuTrinfo is the parent company of Kitchens with Confidence.)
“Vanderbilt Campus Dining is honored to be the recipient of this award,” Suttle says. But just as important is the fact that the allergy program can help ensure all diners feel at ease – regardless of what they are or aren’t able to eat. “Students can just walk up with their friends and not worry if this has X ingredient,” she says. And that kind of peace of mind invaluable.