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How colleges are tackling allergies in 2018

Guy Procopio got a taste of the future when Michigan State University hosted a Boy Scout event in 2015. Out of 10,000 participants at the East Lansing, Mich., campus, Procopio, the director of dining services, received 1,400 requests to meet special dietary needs, including a wide spectrum of allergies, gluten intolerance or insensitivity, and other new or unusual hyper-specialized diets.

This dining trend isn’t letting up, at least in America: Food allergies in children increased approximately 50% from 1997 to 2011. They now affect one in 13 children in the United States, according to research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If severely allergic diners aren’t eating in most noncommercial operations already, they will be soon.

As a Type 1 diabetic who has experienced incidents of low blood sugar, Procopio could relate, and he sent staff dietitian Gina Keilen for master training through AllerTrain. The specialization of the American diet is a permanent shift, Keilen believes, and FSDs need to be more ready than ever to cater to new needs in 2018. “I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” she says. “People aren’t making this up, and it’s here to stay.”

Where to draw (and not draw) lines

Allergies were already on Michigan State’s radar when the Boy Scouts arrived on campus. In 2014, a freshman reacted to a tiny nut exposure that staff ultimately could not trace.

Although the student’s anaphylactic shock was delayed, it did require hospitalization—prompting the dining team to do a reset over spring break and remove peanuts, tree nuts and coconut entirely from the menus at two of its halls.

The team deliberately labeled those dining halls “nut-conscious” rather than “peanut-free,” as they’re aware that students may, for instance, snack on nuts in their rooms and come to eat without washing their hands. “We really go above and beyond,” Procopio says. “But I always shake my head when I see an elementary school call itself peanut-free—there’s no such thing. It creates a false sense of security.”

Procopio and Keilen also consciously chose not to stock Michigan State’s dining locations with EpiPens. “That creates new responsibilities from a medical standpoint,” Procopio says. “We all thought it was best that these young adults be vigilant.”

At Valparaiso University’s main dining center, however, EpiPens are stocked at either end of the building, says John Reid, assistant director of dining and catering. Three years ago, a prospective student at the Valparaiso, Ind., school mistook a peanut butter cookie for a sugar cookie and had a mild reaction. Though his parents took him to the hospital and he was fine, administrators were alarmed.

Valparaiso’s general counsel approved the stocking of the EpiPens as part of an official allergic reaction response process. “Our procedure is call 911 first,” Reid says. “We will ask you where your EpiPen is. We will administer and guide your hand to inject you. You will go to the hospital come heck or high water.”

How to do special stations

When the level of need is high enough, operators have turned to drawing a more physical line, with special stations dedicated to allergic and food-sensitive diners. St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., developed its first allergy-friendly station in 2012. The college received partial funding from FARE, the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, which awards matching grants of up to $10,000 for such investments.

Staff put in a year of research and consultation and six months of construction, says Melissa DaPra, St. Norbert’s marketplace manager. The resulting station is free of gluten and most of the “big eight” allergens, though it does include controlled use of dairy and soy.

The college surveyed students not only about the mechanics of receiving their food—whether they’d like to preorder via call, email or app, for example—but also about what sorts of cuisine they’d like. “We toured other colleges and they were doing it well, but we stayed away from the lean roasted meats and a side of starch that we saw in other places,” DaPra says. “We found these students all want to eat what everyone else is eating: pizzas, chicken wings, typical college foods.”

Each of Michigan State’s nine dining halls has an allergy-friendly station, and in the past few years they’ve gone from being open only to those with reported allergies to being open to all. “When they were locked, people weren’t going to the manager, and they were missing out,” Keilen says. “We made the decision to open them up. There are people who don’t really need it who take it now, but we are performing a greater service.”

After hiring staff dietitian Patty Anson two years ago, Oklahoma State University opened a special dining concept, The Natural, in 2016. The allergen-friendly, vegetarian station offers all breads free of soy, gluten, egg and milk. Flatbread pizzas, salads and both cold and hot-pressed sandwiches are on offer; a panino of sunbutter with banana is one of the most popular dishes.

Anson’s business card is displayed at the station, encouraging those with dietary needs to call her. Bill Moloney, director of university dining services for the Stillwater, Okla., school, says The Natural has been serving about 100 meals a day.

Ready for the next: Low-FODMAP and More

The newest acronym to hit vocabularies: FODMAP, or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. Low-FODMAP diets appear to aid digestion for those with irritable bowel syndrome, and doctors’ prescriptions for it are on the rise. These diets avoid foods containing certain sugars and fibers that may cause diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating and abdominal pain.

This is where it gets tricky for foodservice providers: High-FODMAP foods make up a long list, including lactose; fructose; sugars found in various fruits, vegetables and candies; and fibers found in wheat, onions, garlic, beans and soy milk. “[FODMAP] is coming at us full-force right now,” Keilen says.

Another highly specialized diet on operators’ radars is Jain cuisine, a vegetarian diet that excludes onions, potatoes, eggplants, garlic and other root vegetables. Oklahoma State was home to an Indian student who was having trouble adhering to the Jain diet last year. He had lost a great deal of weight, and his parents were thinking of bringing him home—until he worked with Ansom, the university’s dietitian. Now, he’s thriving. “It’s one of our success stories in working with international student affairs,” she says.

At Valparaiso, Reid sees sesame and corn coming down the pike as problematic menu items. He’s wary of the fact that imported sesame oil is often processed in the same overseas facilities that process peanut oil. And he’s seen people beginning to avoid both high-fructose corn syrup and corn as a vegetable. While the school isn’t prepared to eliminate either ingredient yet, it’s pulling back from both in its recipes. “We’re probably going to have to reduce or remove them eventually, but in the present time we’ll just have them limited,” Reid says. “A kid and corn are hard to keep apart.”

Diners have chosen schools such as Michigan State because of the dietary accommodations, Keilen says. “Being able to eat safely is a big factor in people picking the university they pick,” she says. “You’re never going to make everybody happy, but students telling a cook, ‘You made my semester for me,’ and watching their reaction of tears—it’s worth it.”

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