A nationwide movement away from gluten is pushing colleges and universities to find safer and more secure ways to prepare and serve gluten-free meals. And while almost all schools have dedicated menu items, none have gone as far as the University of Chicago.
At the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, UChicago rolled out a dedicated gluten-free station in a retrofitted Mongolian grill in its Cathey Dining Hall. Certified through the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Food Service (GFFS) Accreditation Program, the station is the first of it’s kind.
“One of our core dining values is that every student, regardless of his or her dietary needs, should be able to eat in our halls,” says Richard Mason, executive director. “In 2016, we’re opening a brand new Campus North dining hall designed with another dedicated gluten-free station. We wanted to begin the work of preparing for that in our existing facility.”
One of the primary reasons this concept worked in this space, Mason explains, is that the station is physically separated from the rest of the dining hall stations. It has its own kitchen and prep area along with its own refrigeration and storage.
“We were fortunate to have the space laid out in such a way that lent itself well to this transformation,” he adds.
In order to make it gluten-free, the staff had to thoroughly clean all existing equipment while also purchasing new items like pots, pans and utensils.
“Anything with a purple handle belongs to the gluten-free station,” Mason says.
To further help prevent cross-contamination, all dry storage cabinets are locked and gluten-detecting strips have been—and will continue to be—used to ensure the space is truly gluten-free.
“Issues of trust are extremely important,” says Mason, who adds that the Gluten Intolerance Group helped train and certify five front-line staff members as well as managers as “gluten-free specialists.” “If for some reason we couldn’t staff the station with trained employees or managers, we’d close it for the day before we compromise the health and safety of our students,” he adds.
While some students mourned the loss of the Mongolian grill, Mason worked with campus dining groups to involve them in the new concept.
“Our student community embraces the idea that everyone should be able to participate in our dining programs without having to go to a separate dining hall,” he says. “We have kosher and halal programs for students who need them. It makes sense to us, and to them, to have gluten-free, too.”
The menu at the station continues to feature a number of Mongolian-inspired dishes, however they’ve been reimagined to be gluten-free so that students who need to eat that way, can.
“The station serves the needs of the students who must eat gluten-free, but it also has a broader appeal and all are welcome,” Mason says.
Ultimately, as was the hope initially, the renovation has helped UChicago build a much-needed bridge to its 2016 opening, teaching the team on the ground that menu variety, training and staffing as well as expanded daypart menus will be critical going forward.
“Our dining services provider, Aramark, as well as Carol Shilson, executive director of the Celiac Disease Center located at the University of Chicago Medical Center, have been wonderful resources for us during this process,” Mason says. “Going forward, there’s a lot we can do in terms of further expanding our menu and our program to include more variety and also breakfast options. But this station has helped us establish a more welcoming community while supporting a holistic approach to dining.”