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The benefits of third-party gluten-free/food allergy training programs

The benefits of third-party gluten-free/food allergy training programs

Whether training your associates from scratch or supplementing your internal program, third-party gluten-free/food allergy training programs can be the ideal tool for improving customer service and boosting your reputation and bottom line.

SAFETY FIRST: The gluten-free station at the University of Chicago has its own kitchen and prep area, which eliminates cross-contamination.

When I was the dietitian for a private school foodservice company in 2002, a new phenomenon was happening. I began getting calls from school chefs saying that a student has a severe or life-threatening food allergy and they don’t know what to do. How were they to safely serve these students while maintaining a quality food program for all?

When the calls started coming in almost daily, I realized we needed a companywide education and training program, and we needed it fast. At the time, to my knowledge, there wasn’t a comprehensive foodservice training program. I had to take the initiative to create one.

With food allergies and sensitivities a long-term trend and prevalence rates on the rise, many organizations have since developed education, training and certification programs for operators. Some focus on food allergens and others on gluten, but ultimately they are teaching the same thing—how to take a comprehensive approach to avoiding cross contact, from the moment ingredients enter the back of the house until finished dishes reach the customer. This includes developing standards of practice (SOPs), policies and procedures to ensure the safe handling of food, from storage to preparation to service.

With these third-party training programs, developed in conjunction with highly esteemed experts, operators don’t have to create their own program from scratch. They can often be a more efficient and comprehensive option than what an operator can create on his own. For operators wanting to create their own program, these third-party options fill in knowledge and skills gaps for taking an in-house program from good to great.

“There is no reason to develop a program from scratch when best practices have been developed and refined by others who have forged the way,” says Beckee Moreland, director of GREAT (Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training) Kitchens, The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA).

SIGNAGE: The Gluten Free pantry at the University of Michigan. Diners must go through a training course on how to utilize the pantry and avoid cross-contamination of foods. Once certified, diners get entry to the pantry with a swipe card.

Other program managers say the same thing regarding expertise—their programs were developed by top-notch experts in the fields of food allergies and celiac disease, including foodservice professionals, registered dietitians, and clinical and research physicians.  

This is important because misinformation about food allergies, sensitivities and celiac disease is everywhere. These programs were developed with the input of experts who can distinguish between facts and myths so that operators can, in turn, communicate reliably to their customers.

According to Moreland, programs developed by experts provide more than just “the how” of setting up SOPs, policies and protocols for serving safe food. “GREAT learning provides ‘the why’ about the seriousness of celiac disease,” Moreland says. Understanding the severity of food allergies and sensitivities is the first step in providing great customer service and communicating with customers with special dietary needs.

Anne Tursky, assistant executive director, NJY Camps in Millford and Lakewood, Pa., agrees. In 2011, when the camp opened its kitchen, its full-time staff was trained via NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens program. (Disclosure: NFCA now has a specific program for schools and camps called GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps, which I was hired to help launch.) Since then, its kitchen and all foodservice staff are certified and accredited on a yearly basis by Gluten-Free Food Service Certification (GFFS), offered by the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG).

“In December 2011, when we first decided to open the gluten-free kitchen at camp, we met with the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University to learn what being gluten sensitive or having celiac disease meant. After that meeting, we realized we had not fully understood the seriousness of this,” Tursky recalls. “We realized we had no expertise and could not do any of this on our own. So we made the decision that we needed professionals to ensure we did it correctly.”

Tursky isn’t alone. Lindsay Haas, MPH, RD, culinary and nutrition support specialist for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, had already developed an internal gluten-free/food allergy training program, which she teaches twice a year. The Michigan dining team, however, gained additional education through the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) College Food Allergy Pilot Program in the spring 2015 semester, where Menutrinfo trainers educated their management staff.

“Allergy training through Menutrinfo gave our staff a new perspective on food allergies,” Haas says. “We have also brought in a student with food allergies to speak to staff about the challenges students with food allergies have when dining in our facilities. The student spoke to the management staff almost two years ago and they still talk about the impact that it made.”

Customer Confidence, more

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Customers with food allergies or celiac disease won’t patronize an operation they don’t feel safe in.

The program managers emphasize the fact that third-party training and education programs are an important part of building customer confidence, as the organizations behind the training programs are esteemed, go-to resources in their communities.

According to James R. Baker Jr., MD, CEO of FARE, “many students feel a greater level of confidence when they know their college or university uses materials from FARE, the leading advocacy organization working on behalf of the 15 million Americans [with food allergies].”

While each program is unique, they are the same in that they share their logos with operators that have completed their programs as a way to communicate with customers. It is an opportunity for the training organizations to market their programs, but, more importantly, customers understand that the foodservice operation takes food allergies and celiac disease seriously and has taken the time and effort to train their associates.

“When a family calls and realizes their child can go to a traditional overnight camp without worry, that is special,” Tursky says. “They see the GIG accreditation and they know we have gone to every length to ensure the safety of their child’s health.”

Say It to Me
An essential part of garnering customers’ trust is communication and customer service. The communications portion of third-party training programs is often the piece operators say they benefit from most. They may know how to ensure a meal is gluten-free, but their marketing materials and associates’ verbal and non-verbal cues can often indicate otherwise.

“Many operators focus on the back-of-house piece,” Moreland says. “However, if the server isn’t confident or the knowledge from the kitchen hasn’t been carried through all aspects of communication, the guest may not be secure, even if protocols are followed behind the kitchen door.”

David Crownover, product manager, ServSafe, National Restaurant Association in Chicago, makes an interesting point regarding associate-to-associate communication.

“[The program] delivers the material in the same manner each time,” he says. “That consistency is important to make certain that everyone [uses] the same terminology when it comes to communicating any food safety issue like food allergens.”

A Tailored Approach
Third-party program developers understand that every operation is unique, making it necessary for training to be customizable and flexible.

GREAT Kitchens and GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps courses are offered on site as well as online. The online program is suited for operations wanting all employees to go through the same training modules. Programs implementing an onsite program often use a train-the-trainer model, where one or more upper level managers goes through the online training module and then teaches their associates using support materials.  

“We do not require special purchase of equipment or limit suppliers,” says Channon Quinn, vice president of food safety for the Gluten Intolerance Group. “Rather, we educate operators on how to appropriately select their raw materials and goods and how to safely store and handle the products prior to service.”

Baker stresses that the FARE College Food Allergy Program “is a framework [operators] can use to create custom solutions that will work on their campus.”

Likewise, Crownover says the ServSafe Allergens program is designed to set a baseline of awareness and confidence for operations. “Once that has happened, SOPs and policies and procedures can be developed that are specific to their operation.”

Best of all, gluten-free and food allergy training programs are highly interchangeable, as the core element of both is to educate associates about safe food handling to avoid cross contact with an offending food. While the different programs educate about substitutions for offending foods, the key learning is how to put SOPs, procedures and protocols into place that keep offending foods separate from all others in the establishment. In the same regard, programs specific to a certain foodservice setting likely have portions of the program and resources that are transferrable to other foodservice environments.

PLAN AHEAD: Third-party training programs bring expertise to dining services’ gluten-free programs. Photo: Thinkstock

A big bonus for utilizing third-party training programs is that the training organizations generally offer marketing support. As mentioned above, once training and certification is complete, the training organizations allow operators to use their logos on menus and other marketing materials to instill confidence in customers. In addition, the organizations often set aside space on their website to list the operations that have gone through training, as these organizations are a central point for people with food allergies and celiac disease to go for information about how to best manage their condition.  

In 2016, FARE is launching a database in which colleges that have completed the program can list their school and inform students and their parents about how they accommodate food-allergic customers.

Similarly, ServSafe has partnered with FARE on the SafeFARE database, allowing consumers to research which restaurants and foodservice operations have been trained and are food allergy aware.

When it comes to accessing gluten-free/food allergy resources for foodservice, it’s no longer the Wild West. The education, training and certification programs available today are all-encompassing and developed in conjunction with experts enabling operators to comprehensively educate their associates and give them the expertise and confidence to accurately communicate with customers and provide outstanding customer service to people with special dietary needs.

The value to your company’s reputation and bottom line that comes with serving millions more food-allergic customers far outweighs the cost of paying for a third-party program.

Four national programs offered to foodservice operators

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Here’s a review of four national programs being offered to foodservice operators. Each program provides a slightly different and nuanced approach to education, training and/or certification/accreditation.

Training Program Name:

GREAT Kitchens and GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps (Gluten-Free Resource Education Awareness Training)

Affiliate Organization:

National Foundation for Celiac Awareness,

Program Description:

A comprehensive, multi-module online or onsite training course that provides foodservice professionals with training tools, tips and procedures to start or improve their gluten-free program. Once the GREAT management course has been successfully completed, exam is passed and the certificate received, learners are eligible to submit an application for GREAT Accreditation for their location/school where the GREAT standards have been implemented. The GREAT Accreditation is renewable after two years and includes marketing benefits with NFCA.  

Program Highlights:

•    Course levels include Management and Standard (Back-of-House and Front-of-House) courses.
•    Some GREAT materials are offered in Spanish, including the training manual, exam and training DVD.
•    Notifications about regional educational opportunities, webinars, industry resources, and newsletters.

Training Program Name:

GFFS (Gluten-Free Food Service Certification)

Affiliate Organization:

Gluten Intolerance Group,

Program Description:

A certification and training program for safe gluten-free foodservice. The purpose of the program is to properly educate and assure training and standard operating procedures are in place for safe gluten-free food handling. Training programs are customizable to each location.  

Program Highlights:

•    Onsite audits of practices
•    Employees are internally tested using template tests provided by GFFS, all of which are submitted and reviewed as part of an audit process.

Training Program Name:

FARE College Food Allergy Program

Affiliate Organization:

Food Allergy Research and Education,

Program Description:

A comprehensive guide that addresses foodservice in the college setting. The guide details how to create effective policies and address the risk of cross contact while serving and preparing food for students with food allergies and celiac disease. The guide is not a training program in itself, but provides universities information they would need to create their own training.

Program Highlights:

•    In 2016, FARE will launch a database in which colleges and universities can create a listing and inform parents and students about what their programs offer.
•    Support group for college and university representatives implementing food allergy programs.

Training Program Name:

ServSafe Allergens Online Course and Assessment

Affiliate Organization:

National Restaurant Association,   

Program Description:

A certificate level training program designed to help foodservice operators understand food allergens, whether they can accommodate those with food allergies and how to do so properly. It is primarily designed for the restaurant industry, but has been used by other organizations, including foodservice management in schools and senior living facilities. 

Program Highlights

•    To increase engagement and retention, an animated avatar acts as the trainer throughout the course and the course takes place in a fictional restaurant, where training occurs in various environments throughout the location.

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