4 ways to meet special dietary needs of students in the dining hall

How colleges are working to guarantee a safe and delicious dining experience for all students
By: | October 22, 2019
Nourish, an allergen-friendly kitchen at Carnegie Mellon U,, ensures that students with "top 8" allergies can safely enjoy a variety of items that are prepared and sealed in a dedicated kitchen by staff with special training on cross-contact prevention.Nourish, an allergen-friendly kitchen, ensures that Carnegie Mellon U students with "top 8" allergies can safely enjoy a variety of items that are prepared and sealed in a dedicated kitchen by staff with special training on cross-contact prevention.

Classrooms, libraries and residence halls may appear to be the key points of interest on campus tours—but dining halls are stops that can make or break an impression that leads to enrollment for students with special dietary needs. That’s a big reason a growing number of colleges and universities are creating vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, allergen-friendly, kosher or halal menus as part of their dining programs. Here’s how they are cooking up these options.

1. Keeping safe foods separate and safe.

This can involve placing niche food stations in larger dining halls or designing completely separate spaces devoted to specific food needs.

Tufts University dining provides vegan and vegetarian foods at dining hall stations named Beans, Greens and Grains. Foods without gluten, peanuts and tree nuts get stocked in sealed pantries for cross-contamination protection.

At Kent University, Prentice Café accommodates a growing number of students with Celiac disease and gluten allergies and sensitivities. Many dining facilities serve gluten-free foods, but Prentice Café, open to all students, can boast being the first Gluten Intolerance Group Certified full dining location on a U.S. college campus. (Three dining locations at Boston University, one at Auburn University in Alabama, and three at The University of Chicago have now earned certification as well.)

2. Make an investment.

At Kent State, the $20,000 cost of opening Prentice Café included smallwares such as color-coded knives and cutting boards, sterilization to remove all gluten residues and potential airborne contaminants, and then a swab test to ensure the facility was free of allergens.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh spent $250,000 to create Nourish, a takeout kitchen where all foods are prepared without gluten, wheat, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, soy and most tree nuts.

More coverage on campus dining.

3. Prioritize staff training.

Colleges must depend on well-trained dining services staff to handle food in a way that makes it safe for those with special diets. Working with a food service provider such as Aramark or Sodexo can help to ensure this. In addition to staying up to date on recalls and food safety guidelines, the food service giants manage all aspects of such training.

Colleges with in-house dining services are left to develop their own programs. At Tufts, the manager of staffing and a registered dietitian provide the annual allergen training (as well as periodic reviews) to dining hall staff, with topics such as safe food handling and sanitation of utensils and prep surfaces to avoid cross-contamination.

To meet the dietary needs of students who keep kosher, some schools have experts on staff to ensure religious standards are met.

For instance, Northwestern University has a kosher station in Allison Residential Community’s dining hall. A rabbi oversees preparation and works with food-service partner Sodexo to confirm the foods being ordered are kosher. He also supervises deliveries to make sure food is handled, prepped and stored to kosher standards.

4. Rethink the need for a direct ROI.

From dedicated equipment and facilities to higher food prices, meeting diverse dietary needs comes at a cost. However, the decision to offer meal accommodations, say dining administrators whose schools have prioritized accommodating special dietary needs, is not about profit and loss. It’s about creating a more inclusive environment where students are supported (and, of course, well-fed).

Read the full original story on creating mindful menus.

Stefanie Botelho is UB’s newsletter editor.