For students who subscribe to a gluten-free or allergen-free diet, choosing a college or university presents a whole new set of challenges.
In response, a growing number of schools have begun offering myriad choices including dedicated stations, modified recipes and open communication platforms to engage with students about their needs, wants and wishes.
Clark University (Worcester, MA) operates a scratch kitchen with a whole-foods approach. In its dining hall there are 13 different dining platforms including a dedicated gluten-free concept called “My Zone.”
“We use a ‘Made Without Gluten’ approach,” says Heather Vaillette, general manager, who began offering more and more gluten-free options in 2007 when she noticed how long it took celiac students to find something safe to eat. “Our program evolved from a warm pantry and small fridge to a dedicated station concept that always offers a hot entrée as well as a full fridge of safe choices.”
Clark students are encouraged to ask staff about ingredients as well as for modifications wherever possible.
“College dining is the stepping stone to real life,” says Vaillette, who estimates that between 4% and 7% of students have some type of food intolerance. “When a new or prospective student meets with us, we show them their options and teach them what to avoid and how to ask for modifications. They have to take ownership of their diet and we enable them do that.”
“By offering ‘Made Without Gluten’ options, it allows students to focus on other important tasks besides what they are going to eat,” says Jill Hamilton, registered dietitian at Baylor University, Waco, Texas, where two of the school’s four dining halls have a dedicated gluten-free station concept. “It simplifies the process of getting food so students can get in and out as efficiently as possible.”
Gluten-free dining at Notre Dame (ND), South Bend, I.N., is a piece of (gluten-free) cake. Students have their own private dining area located within the main dining center where they will find all sorts of safe foods.
“We have a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, toaster, panini grill and waffle iron,” says Chris Abayasinghe, director of food services at ND. “We stock the room with cereals, snacks, pastas, breads and other gluten-free items.”
To gain access to this center, students first meet with the school’s registered dietitian to go over their personal needs and see what ND can do to accommodate them. Once they have access, their options are unlimited.
In order to keep students safe, all dining members are trained to understand the severity of food allergies. As a result, everything is carefully labeled on recipes, ingredient containers, menus and online databases.
“In May we partnered with FARE and MenuTrinfo to conduct two days of training for our staff,” says Abayasinghe. “All of our managers, chefs and lead culinary staff are now certified in food allergies and celiac disease. All of our hourly staff members completed an abridged version of the class by MenuTrinfo, too.”
ND is one of the first universities to complete this level of training and certification.
At Columbia University (New York, N.Y.), naturally gluten-free items are identified on signage with a red “GF” sticker. Plus, the school’s John Jay Dining Hall offers a full gluten-free station called the “gluten free zone,” where a gluten-free hot protein, starch and vegetable are served daily.
“For students with severe allergies and concerns, we prepare separate meals in our kitchens with food allergy kits,” says Kristie Koerner, Columbia’s registered dietitian.
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., is equally dedicated to allergy-safe eating.
“We have a platform called “Gluten Solutions” which provides foods to students that are made without gluten,” says Georgtown’s registered dietitian, Allison Marco, MS, RD, LDN. “This program includes a separate section in the dining hall where students with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can eat safely. The station has a separate fridge, microwave, toaster oven and panini press to prevent cross contamination. In this station we offer gluten-free cereals, breads, cookies, oatmeal, ice cream cones, dinner rolls, mac & cheese, bagels, burritos and more that are safe for consumption.”
Like Columbia, Georgetown also labels each recipe and food item with the top eight allergens. And Marco works closely with students by e-mailing them with daily options that are made without gluten at each meal period.
Labeling is important at Carleton College, Northfield, M.N., too, where students have the same gluten-free options as non-gluten-free students and are offered at least one naturally gluten-free entrée at every meal, along with dessert.
“We teach students to look at labels when making their selections,” says Katie McKenna, general manager. “We are also transparent in our menu wording using the key words in the name (i.e. cashew chicken salad), as well as using the allergenic food as a garnish on desserts so that it’s visible that an item contains nuts.”
Creating a unique environment for gluten-free and food-sensitive students to eat safely and successfully on campus is a constant challenge, but open communication seems to be the bloodline between all successful programs.
“We have a dining board that we meet with every other week to get feedback about our programs,” says McKenna.
Clark University echoes the same strategy.
“We don’t want to just offer what we think they’ll like,” says Vaillette. “So we meet with students regularly to keep our finger on the pulse of what they’re looking for.”
While offering gluten-free and allergen-free foods is still something of a trend, for schools that do it well, it can also mean the difference in attendance.
“Students sometimes base their choice of college on campus dining options,” says Georgetown’s Marco. “We want to make sure that any student considering Georgetown as their university will feel comfortable attending—and eating—here.”