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How University of Massachusetts keeps allergen-free dining going strong

Flexible options, a well-trained staff and enhanced technology help meet students’ dietary needs, despite labor and supply chain challenges.
Allergen-free cooking at U Mass
Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts

In 2003, when dietitian Dianne Sutherland started food allergy training for the dining program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, only 10 students had notified the program that they needed special dietary accommodations.

Fast forward to 2021, and that number has swelled to 2,061.

“The national average increase is 8%, but this year alone, our numbers went up 10.9%,” she says.

Sutherland, who has been with the university for 34 years, spearheaded a program that helps students with allergies navigate the menu. Each year, it becomes more precise, powered by individual counseling, advanced training and tech enhancements.

Making adjustments

Starting in 2016, Sutherland and her team began identifying and tracking freshmen with allergies prior to their arrival for orientation. “We show them how to navigate the dining commons through the guide on our website,” she says. “This year, we’re developing an app that will be available in the spring.”

The week’s online menus are color-coded with icons, indicating whole grain, vegan and other criteria, and if students click the apple next to a menu item, they can see a detailed analysis showing all of the ingredients, allergens and nutrients in that dish.

Grab-and-go items on the line are labeled with their specific allergens. A Hummus Vegetable Sandwich on Whole Wheat, for example, is labeled as containing gluten, soy, corn, sesame and wheat, printed below the ingredient list.

allergen label on sandwich

Photo courtesy of University of Massachusetts

“We have to update inventory items every six months to check specs from manufacturers,” says Sutherland. “They sometimes change the formulation or throw in sesame or peanut as a flavor enhancer.” Sesame recently was identified as the 10th most common allergen, joining milk, wheat (gluten), corn, eggs, peanuts, soybeans, fish, shellfish and tree nuts, she says.

The three University of Massachusetts dietitians work individually with each student to guide them and investigate any problems. “Sometimes an item may not be labeled correctly or a recipe not prepared according to directions, and a student may have a reaction,” says Sutherland. “And some students develop an allergic reaction later in their teens or early 20s while they’re at college.”

UMass students with allergies are free to eat in any dining commons and are not directed to a dedicated “allergen station” or section. “We don’t want to limit students as to where they can eat,” says Sutherland. “Instead, they are able to ask the staff to serve them food from behind the line, not off the line, to avoid any cross-contamination.”

Staying adaptable

Meals are prepared under carefully monitored conditions for those with severe allergies, then covered and put in a warmer for them to pick up. This protocol was instituted six or seven years ago, when the numbers started increasing, says Sutherland. The app will make it easier for these students to order ahead.

If the dining commons is offering a special meal, like the lobster and steak Halloween dinner served this fall, the dietitians will direct students who are allergic to shellfish to a different dining hall with a separate meal. Since allergens can travel through the air, this puts those students in a safe environment.

sweet Loren's cookies

Cookies baked from vegan, gluten-free dough; photo courtesy of Sweet Loren's

In light of current labor and supply challenges, UMass Dining menus have been simplified and streamlined. Sutherland says they try to keep all students on the same menu, with modifications, and not all of the former options are available.

In addition, some new labor-saving products have been added to inventory. One recent addition is a premade vegan cookie dough free from the top 10 allergens.

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