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Colleges are adjusting to new expectations from students after they returned to campus this fall after a year of virtual learning. One such consideration is how to accommodate students with dietary restrictions, including students who are following a gluten-free diet out of medical necessity or choice. Although many colleges already offer gluten-free options, the quality of these offerings varies widely from campus to campus. When applying for admittance to a school, students requiring a strict gluten-free diet (and their parents) will likely check to be certain these foods are available.
An estimated 1% of Americans have been diagnosed with celiac disease, while an additional 6% may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). At a small college campus of 10,000 students, this translates to about 100 students with celiac and 600 with some form of NCGS. Additionally, according to new research from GIG, 13% of the Gen Z population, many of whom are now in college, are avoiding foods with gluten. While this might seem like a small number of students, the demand is increasing and the medical consequences of consuming even a single particle of gluten can be severe, so it’s vital that colleges accommodate students who require a gluten-free diet by making enjoyable options available.
It’s true that many universities have successfully launched gluten-free programs, but it is often the lack of variety that tops the list of student complaints. If your dining halls serve a rotating menu, figuring in how to provide enough choices to prevent this frustration is worth the research. There’s probably not a student at your campus who doesn’t like pizza or dessert, so including these favorites on your menu is always popular. Many brands now offer gluten-free pizzas as well as prepackaged, individually wrapped brownies and other baked goods, which ensures serving students on gluten-free diets need not be an onerous burden on an already over-worked dining hall. The standard “meat-and-potato” diets offered to all students are naturally gluten-free, as long as they aren’t served with gravies and sauces made with wheat flour or other gluten-containing ingredients. Of course, creating menus that incorporate items that are inherently gluten-free, like fruits and vegetables, is another way to add variety to the menu. These need no special handling, except to be isolated during the preparation stage from bread rolls, flour tortillas, flour-based pasta and other foods that contain gluten.
Ready for a revamp? Some tips for getting started.
In 2020, many institutions tabled remodeling plans to focus on virtual learning as shelter-in-place orders closed many campuses. Now that students are returning to school, most campuses are gradually resuming standard operations, making this an opportune time to review how dietary restrictions are being handled.
Colleges and universities who want to serve gluten-free menus have several options in how to make available what’s being served on the menu. The most common approach is to place a gluten-free food station at each dining hall on campus. Many colleges offer allergen-free food stations that include gluten-free items, which is a convenient way of serving students with different dietary restrictions. The other, less flexible approach is to construct a gluten-free dining hall. This direction requires significant resources that may not be available to colleges with limited budgets. Whether you build a dedicated dining hall or provide gluten-free food stations throughout campus, the main thing is to ensure that at least one dining hall offers gluten-free items and is centrally located for easy access.
Additionally, as you develop the gluten-free menu, it is important to remember to implement safe food handling procedures to prevent cross-contact. The best way is to prepare gluten-free foods from scratch rather than using prepackaged or pre-made foods, where it may be difficult to ascertain all of the ingredients and whether or not those ingredients are gluten-free. The university dietitian can advise chefs on what and what not to use when planning gluten-free menus and preparing gluten-free meals.
In the dining hall itself, it’s recommended to keep a separate stock of plates and silverware at the gluten-free food station, as opposed to the usual practice of having students pick up these items at a common location. This helps avoid the possibility of these utensils being subject to cross-contact with gluten-containing foods. In the kitchen, it’s a good idea to keep gluten-free foods on the top shelves, so if there’s a spill of any kind, these products won’t be contaminated.
Once you’ve set up dedicated stations for preparing gluten-free dishes, it is good practice to walk through each area to ensure that equipment used to make gluten-free items are properly sanitized and that ingredients for gluten-free items are stored separately.
Getting the word out
Another important step is to make sure to use every avenue to inform students about their gluten-free dining options. A good place to publish your gluten-free menu is on your website in an easy-to-find location. You can also leverage social media to spread the word about your gluten-free program. When students come to the dining hall, menus can be posted at each food station that clearly identify which items are gluten-free.
As mentioned earlier, many students who are following a gluten-free diet report that the availability of gluten-free options is the deciding factor in their choice of school, so spreading the word about your program can add support to your marketing efforts as well. You can also leverage resources from organizations that validate gluten-free programs like the Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS), which offers a wealth of resources for campuses that want to add or expand their gluten-free offerings.
Feeling at home
After a year of COVID-related uncertainty, students are seeking reassurance that their college campus provides a safe place to learn—and live. Adding variety, preventing cross-contact, and increasing access to gluten-free options are three ways your campus can make the grade when serving quality gluten-free meals. Providing a well-designed gluten-free program assures students that their good health is just as important to their school as what they came to study.
Lindsey Yeakle is the Gluten-Free Food Service Program Manager, Food Safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group. She has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants.