Right now, approximately 32 million people in the U.S. have food allergies, so you can safely bet that you’ll serve someone who could have a bad reaction (or worse) to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish. And, since most food allergy reactions happen outside the home, foodservice operators bear a big responsibility, especially in onsite operations, where oftentimes students, employees or residents rely on a safe dining spot, day in day out.
Sodexo’s solution for allergy safe dining, a program called Simple Servings, began years ago and has evolved as food allergy awareness (and actual cases of food allergies) has been on the rise. The program itself is a good case study into how food allergies are accommodated in foodservice operations, and how it’s evolving.
Sodexo Campus Services Regional Dietitian Susan Hurd, RDN LDN, has witnessed that evolution from day one, leading the development and oversight of Simple Servings’ operational practices. Her mindset? Empathy.
“As a parent, and also through my work with students over the years, I empathize with the parents who want to trust us to keep their children safe,” Hurd says. “My passion for the work comes from those parents who call with appreciation for keeping their children safe and well.”
Having a point person in charge of allergy-safe practices at each account/location has made Simple Servings the award-winning program it is today, according to Tina Reddington, Sodexo’s National Director for Health and Wellness, Campus Segment. “I am grateful for Sue’s expertise,” she says. “She graciously agreed to be our integral team leader for the Food Allergy Special Team providing instruction to our new RDs and guidance for our operators who may be new to running a food allergy platform.”
Simple Servings: How it started/How it’s going
“The concept originated as a self-serve platform with menu items made without gluten and seven (of the then top eight) allergens,” Hurd says. “Fundamental allergen training was required, but the program lacked an accountability measure.”
Over the last five years, a multi-layered training program with on-hire, bi-annual and routine programming has helped boost Simple Servings’ accountability, as have operational standards that monitor the flow of food from receiving to service, complete with safety audits twice a year.
“We also have an agreement with FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), which provides third-party oversight with their FARECheck Gold audit,” Hurd says. “The Simple Servings program at Moravian University in Bethlehem, Pa., was the very first contracted dining program to take part in this FARE partnership.”
And dietitians are taking the lead for Simple Servings’ ongoing evolution, as a required component of Simple Servings on college campuses. “The dietitians are the food allergy subject matter experts and play a key role in assisting with the operational excellence of the program,” Hurd says.
At Lehigh University, Simple Servings is chugging along smoothly, and chicken and rice is a favorite menu item.
“Chicken and rice is huge, and so is fish as a protein, but generally if it looks good at the station, they’ll try it,” Executive Chef John Hynes. “I’m constantly surprised that they do try things if it looks good. I think it speaks volumes that this is one of the most popular stations, and we attract many students who don’t have food allergies.”
Chefs and dietitians working together is the tried-and-true best practice for allergy-safe dining. “It’s a team effort,” says Keri Lasky, MS, RDN, LDN, CLT, Lehigh University On-Campus Registered Dietitian. “You need accountability points within the operating points and if you don’t have someone devoted to it, you’ll struggle.”
Lasky emphasizes “education, education, education” for those with allergies, their parents and the dining team. She regularly meets with parents of prospective and current students and considers dietitian visibility to be a big part of her job.
“It’s never-ending; it’s every day,” Hynes says. “The main thing is making sure there’s no cross-contact. This station is separate from everything else, our prep space is only for Simple Servings and we have dedicated ovens, fryers, counters, stoves, utensils, pots, pans…everything.”
Made-to-order the safe way at Ohio U
At Ohio University, Margaret’s Made for You (or just Margaret’s for short), is a brand-new concept that just opened inside The District dining area in Boyd Hall on the West Green of campus. A trained dining team member is there behind the skillets and bins of fresh ingredients to greet students with special dietary needs (or those who just think it all looks fresh and tasty).
“We have a menu of daily rotating gluten-free entrees and gluten-free desserts as well as our fresh sauteed build-to-order items that feature gluten-free pasta, rice, various proteins, vegetables and sauce,” says OU Executive Chef Kevin Hurst, who shares two keys to success: Routine allergy training for cooks and managers with a registered dietitian and chef; weekly meetings with cook staff on updates about new students with allergies.
According to Hurst, the most popular gluten-free menu items have been chicken parmesan with fresh sauteed veggies, rice noodles sauteed with tofu, veggies and sweet and sour sauce; and cauliflower-crust pizza with vegan cheese and veggies.
At new student orientation, dietitians and dining staff help OU students get ready to navigate the dining halls, and this fall, they’ll be able to share Margaret’s as another resource for safe dining.