Meeting gluten-free needs in the dining hall

Due to COVID-19, students with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities may rely more on campus dining. Here's a look at dining program initiatives that will help keep them safe.
By: | August 11, 2020
Photo by Vegan Liftz on UnsplashPhoto by Vegan Liftz on Unsplash

While the COVID-19 pandemic remains an issue across the country, most universities able to resume in-person classes have already made appropriate arrangements for their dining halls. Apart from determining seating arrangements and related social distancing and hygiene concerns, special attention might also be in order for students who require a gluten-free (GF) diet.

Lindsey Yeakle, Gluten Intolerance Group

Lindsey Yeakle, Gluten Intolerance Group

Dining hall stations dedicated to serving GF foods are not uncommon, but at this time, students with celiac disease or other non-celiac gluten sensitivities may, for several reasons, be more dependent than usual on meals offered at university dining halls. Also, because celiac is an autoimmune disease, these students are perhaps more susceptible to COVID-19 and COVID-19-related complications and will need to take extra care with what they eat to maintain their good health.

When applying for admittance to a university, students requiring a strict gluten-free diet (and their parents) will likely check to be certain these foods are available. For an extra measure of reassurance, they may even ask about a third-party GF certification program that establishes procedures to keep gluten-free food items safe. Most larger universities already offer GF food options, just as they may have ethnic food or vegan food stations. However, for those with sensitivities to gluten, the need for a special diet is less a personal preference than a genuine health issue.

Yet in the past few months, due to the general economic shutdown, commercially produced gluten-free foods have been more difficult to find.

In many cases, large food manufacturers are functioning with limited staff and/or shortened operational hours, and have thus found it necessary to cut back their “specialty” production lines. Smaller manufacturers that specialize in non-allergen and GF products, such as prepackaged desserts, likely have suffered even greater disruptions, and students may not find these foods readily available at local grocery stores.

Some customers who regularly purchase these products may also be stocking up on whatever they can find, creating a situation similar to the toilet paper shortage of a few months ago, so students may have a harder time preparing food for themselves. In addition, many restaurants have been ordered to close or provide only limited service, so this will not be an accessible option for students, either.

A fairly painless solution

Despite these challenges, serving students on gluten-free diets need not be an onerous burden on university dining halls. The standard “meat-and-potato” diets offered to all students are naturally gluten-free, as long as they aren’t served with gravies and sauces made with wheat flour or other gluten-containing ingredients. Likewise, fresh fruits, vegetables and salads do not generally contain gluten; these need no special handling, except to be isolated during the preparation stage from bread rolls, flour tortillas, flour-based pasta and other foods that contain gluten.

The best idea is to prepare gluten-free foods from scratch rather than using prepackaged or pre-made foods, where it may be difficult to ascertain all of the ingredients and whether or not those ingredients are gluten-free. The university dietician can advise chefs on what and what not to use when planning gluten-free menus and preparing gluten-free meals.

In the dining hall itself, it’s recommended to keep a separate stock of plates and silverware at the GF food station, as opposed to the usual practice of having students pick up these items at a common location. This helps avoid the possibility of these utensils being subject to cross-contact with gluten-containing foods. In the kitchen, it’s a good idea to keep gluten-free foods on the top shelves, so if there’s a spill of any kind, these products won’t be contaminated.

Keeping students safe

Returning to school this year is creating enough angst for students and parents alike. Implementing all the initiatives you can to ensure the campus is a safe place to live, learn and eat by offering students on dietary restrictions the option to eat a variety of nutritious foods will help relieve the stress that comes with the decision to return to school and stay healthy.

Lindsey Yeakle is the gluten-free food service program manager, food safety, for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG). She has a culinary history working at 4-star and 4-diamond rated restaurants, and she founded Alligator Pear Personal Chef Service. A celiac disease diagnosis encouraged Yeakle to attend culinary school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts to learn how to design dishes for all types of dietary needs and restrictions. For more information, visit www.gffs.org