In recent years, Stanford University has seen a “huge uptick” of students with food allergies, says Cassidy Ozowara, food allergy and inclusive nutrition programs specialist for the Stanford, Calif., campus.
By her estimation, the number of incoming freshmen reporting that they have food allergies or specific dietary needs has grown by more than 30 percent since 2015.
As such, the dining program’s approach to allergy-friendly foods has evolved, and throughout the process, the team has made collaborating with students a priority to ensure that any solutions put in place make sense for all parties.
“We can dream up a million things of what could work, but if the students aren’t going to utilize it, then what good is that?” Ozowara says, noting that “we can’t do this all in a vacuum.”
Here are a few things they’ve learned along the way.
Make it simple.
The university’s dining program has for a while offered refrigerators full of allergy-friendly foods dubbed Purple Pantries; however, these units used to be “under lock and key,” Ozowara says, and students had to meet with campus dieticians ahead of time and show medical documentation to gain access.
“I think that any kind of hurdles and hoops [are] really deterring not even the students that need it, but kind of everyone, so you’re not going to have as much utilization,” she says.
To boost ease of use, these fridges are now open to everyone as part of the program’s Mindful Meals stations, which offer menu items free of the top allergens, located in every dining hall.
Make it accessible.
Before Stanford rolled out the Mindful Meals stations this year, students could place one-off orders for allergy-friendly meals to be served at a specific dining hall.
However, this process could be labor intensive, Ozowara says, and didn’t give students much flexibility if, say, their friends changed plans and decided to eat at a different hall than the one where an allergen-free meal had been requested.
The new stations address some of these issues, offering up proteins, grains and seasonal steamed veggies, along with Purple Pantries and allergy-safe equipment including a toaster. The concepts are truly a “one-stop shop” and have been working really well, Ozowara says, noting that Mindful Meals items have been popular even among students who don’t have food allergies.
Test for success.
The team conducts a lot of pilots to prove out ideas, Ozowara says, and a recent one that’s worked well is the Fresh Plate program, which operates a bit like a “code word” for students with allergies.
Since Stanford’s foodservice model is largely buffet-style, the possibility of cross-contact and allergen transfer exists just by virtue of diners serving themselves, she says.
Through the initiative, students can come in and ask a staff member for a “fresh plate,” which cues the employee to wash their hands, change gloves, grab fresh utensils and servingware, and retrieve food for the student directly from the warmers or walk-ins so there’s no chance of cross-contamination on the serving line.
Build for inclusion.
The team recently worked with a freshman student who was excited to attend special events in the dining hall but grew frustrated when she’d show up and not be able to eat any of the food provided, Ozowara says.
With that student's help, dining staff worked to create plates free of the top allergens that are now offered at all special foodservice events, such as holiday meals.
“We’re really just trying to make sure that we keep it really inclusive for everyone who’s dining so no one’s feeling left out,” Ozowara says. “It’s really about the students having the same experience no matter what their dietary needs are, and then bringing in those culinary talents of our chefs but in the safest environment possible.”