Going away to college is an important milestone. It’s a time for risk taking and brain building. But for students with food allergies or intolerances, it’s also a time for self-reliance—college is likely the first time these individuals are fully responsible for managing their food allergy.
According to the group Food Allergy & Research Education (FARE), which works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, one in every 13 children under the age of 18 in the U.S. has some form of a food allergy. That’s roughly two in every classroom.
As these kids grow, some lose their allergies, but many others don't. And for those who don’t, they arrive on college campuses with a much different perspective on dining than their peers.
In response, colleges and universities are finding safe ways to accommodate special diets. For some schools that may mean cooking and serving from dedicated allergy-friendly kitchens. For others that may mean menu transparency, so that students can see ingredients, talk with staff members and navigate their options in a safe and productive way. In all cases and at all schools, allergy-friendly dining means serving safe—and delicious—foods in equal measure.
Parkhust Dining runs the foodservice program at Loyola University, Baltimore, Md., where there are 2,600 students on the school’s meal plan.
“To accommodate special diets, we have allergy friendly areas and stations,” says Bill Zimnoch, Resident District Manager with Parkhust at Loyola. “Our kitchens aren’t separate, but we take many precautions to prevent cross contamination.”
For example, the school’s baker arrives early in the morning to a freshly cleaned kitchen. Before any gluten-containing products are made, she prepares all the gluten-free desserts and baked goods.
“We’ve never had any issues,” says Zimnoch, who adds that Loyola benefits from the backing of Parkhurst when it comes to menus and recipes that are safe for those with allergies. “We have a database of well over 400 recipes that are run through corporate. They’ve been tested and developed by dieticians and chefs. It’s extremely useful when menu planning.”
At Loyola, the grilled chicken breast is actually one of the most popular items served from the allergy-friendly station. Flank steak is also a fan favorite.
“Just because you have to avoid allergenic ingredients, doesn’t mean you have to avoid flavor and spice,” says Zimnoch.
One of the best ways Zimnoch says to spice up allergy-friendly foods is through seasoning and cooking methods. Products like TABASCO® brand Original Red Sauce can also add a lot flavor without any concern for allergic reactions.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, chefs rely on fresh, locally sourced products to lay the groundwork for yummy allergy-friendly foods.
“You don’t need to bread a product or cover it in cheese for it to be delicious,” says Lindsay Hass, MPH, RD, Culinary and Nutrition Support Specialist at Michigan Dining. “By being smart about your ingredients, and using the best of what you have access to seasonally and locally, you can get a lot of bang for your buck.”
At Michigan, food is made in small batches and to order, which lowers the chance of cross contamination. Gluten-free pantries are also available in all units on campus and ingredient lists are posted and accessible online.
“A lot of it comes down to the organization of the kitchen,” says Hass. “But we’re focused on customer service and student need and so we go above and beyond to make the dining experience safe.”
North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., follows a similar approach. For them, transparency and customization is key.
NCSU also recently participated in the FARE allergy pilot program aimed at providing colleges and universities with gold-standard recommendations and evidence-based resources needed to effectively manage food allergy.
“The program was introduced last year with the goal of providing students with food allergies a safer college experience by helping colleges and universities develop comprehensive, uniform food allergy management policies,” says Lisa Eberhart, RD, LDN, CDE, Director of Nutrition and Wellness at NCSU. “It’s centered around continual training.”
At NCSU, 89 staff members took the three-hour class, while another 120 took the one-hour class. Both had to pass a test.
“Our goal is for students to dine anywhere on campus and feel safe doing so,” says Eberhart. “We make sure to layout our cafes and our lines in a way that promotes safe dining. We keep all the main allergens on the salad bar in a separate space, for example. We put our croutons in shakers. We’re very aware of how we prepare food and how we serve it, too.”
Like Michigan, Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Va.) puts their menus online and invites students to filter through the options based on allergens to find dishes that are safe and delicious.
“Most students are able to find the information they need on the webpage and never need any further assistance,” says Jenny Lindsey, MEd, RDN, Administrative Dietitian at VT. “The webpage is accessible on their mobile device and we currently have several kiosks available in dining centers where the webpage can be viewed. In fact, we just had a student today tell us that even though he is allergic to soy, peanuts and dairy items, by using the webpage on his phone, he was able to find plenty of foods in our largest dining center to accommodate his needs.”
At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the staff does a lot of one on one with students who approach them with allergy needs.
“We help them navigate our foodservice in whatever way they need,” says Mary Barrera, Manager of Culinary Services. “And if we find that we need to supplement and bring in a special product for someone, we can do that.”
Miami’s goal is to provide a personalized experience for students so that dining doesn’t become a chore and is an enjoyable part of their college experience.
“We love to introduce our students to new and different flavors,” she says. “We do that by getting to know what they like to eat, what their mom made for them growing up and then by pushing the envelope to show them that there is a world of flavor available to them.”
This also helps students take ownership of their allergy.
“We need to prepare these kids for the real world,” says Barrera. “So we make sure to give them all the tools they need to navigate our operation and, eventually, the world beyond our doors.”