Colleges create mindful menus

Campus dining services get creative to serve students with special dietary needs
By: | Issue: April, 2018
March 19, 2018

Classrooms, libraries and residence halls may appear to be the key points of interest on campus tours—but dining halls can generate even bigger buzz. Students scrutinize menus, looking for labels such as vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, allergen-friendly, kosher or halal.

Spotting those options could mean the difference between enrolling or choosing another school.

“We’ve had students see what we offer in the dining hall and tell their parents, ‘This means I can go here,’ ” says Patti Klos, director of dining and business services at Tufts University in Massachusetts, which has taken the approach of using separate pantries to avoid cross-contamination of allergens.

Online exclusive: Dining providers on niche dining challenges

“Before, we had a broader population of students who wanted to matriculate, but we couldn’t meet their dietary needs.”

Whether students require certain foods for health or religious reasons, or they prefer to adhere to specific diets such as vegetarian or vegan, colleges are taking steps to ensure that campus dining programs can accommodate them.

Here are four strategies to successfully address and manage special dietary needs on campus.

1. Define organizational options

Some colleges incorporate niche food stations into larger dining halls while others design separate spaces devoted to specific food needs. Tufts 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.

“We wanted to ensure there would be no cross-contamination, which we couldn’t guarantee in our larger dining facilities,” Klos says.

Concerns about cross-contamination led to a gluten-free dining hall at Kent State University in Ohio, which has 12 dining locations across campus.

Prentice Café opened in 2016 as a response to a growing number of requests from students with gluten allergies, gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease. The Aramark-operated dining hall, which seats about 200, serves 5,100 meals per week.

Other dining facilities serve gluten-free foods, but Prentice Café, which is open to all students regardless of gluten allergies, is the only location dedicated to the specific allergen.

Making a mid-size dining hall a gluten-free zone made sense, says Shay Little, vice president for student affairs. “We knew that doing this in our largest operation or in one those larger facilities might not be practical.”

2. Invest in success

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

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

The CulinArt Group-operated takeout kitchen is located in the Cohon Center (the same building as the fitness center and mailroom) and sells up to 200 meals per week.

“We handled allergies on a case-by-case basis fairly successfully prior to Nourish, but our team didn’t feel it was the best or the safest solution for our students,” says Director of Dining Services Pascal Petter, adding that “it was an investment, but it meant providing more opportunities for students to safely eat on our campus.”

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. Kosher foods are stored and prepped separately from non-kosher foods. 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 foods are handled and stored to kosher standards.

“Students are looking for the variety and authenticity they would get if they were dining out in the local community,” says Ken Field, Northwestern’s director of dining services. “We try to match that expectation with the services we’re providing.”

3. Prioritize training

Colleges 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 Compass Group, Aramark or Sodexo can help. In addition to staying up to date on recalls and food safety guidelines, the food service giants manage all aspects of such training.

Topics can include safe food handling and preparation to avoid cross-contamination, responding to student questions (which can be very specific) about ingredients, proper cleaning, and recognizing and responding to food allergy reactions.

Training can be trickier in larger dining halls because of the size of the kitchens, number of staff and the sheer volume of meals, Little says. In dedicated facilities, such as Prentice Café at Kent State, the risk of cross-contamination is low because no products contain allergens.

“It’s a little bit easier because it’s all that we’re thinking about. We do this one thing,” Little says.

Colleges with in-house dining services must 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.

“We like to be as proactive as we can and the investments in training give us—and our students—the knowledge that the food is safe,” Klos says.

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. Colleges are choosing not to pass the expense along to students and will typically include specialty foods as part of their standard meal plans. The decision to offer such meal accommodations is not about profit and loss.

ROI goes beyond finances, notes Kent State’s Little. The idea is to create “a more inclusive environment for students to learn and live in, and having these kinds of dining options really promotes that,” she says. “Having an inclusive dining program, to me, builds long-term engagement with students that can impact ROI down the road.”

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.