For Michigan State University dining hall staff, serving approximately 27,000 students each semester has never been a walk in the park. Today, however, the job is even more challenging: One in six of these students suffers from an allergy or other dietary restriction. Just five years ago it was one in eight.

Ahead of this fall semester, Kelsey Patterson, the school’s registered dietitian, responded to messages from 300 parents and students about dietary restrictions, which included life-threatening allergies and a variety of special diets based on health, environmental, religious or personal concerns.

Just to combat allergies, two dining room chefs, Jordan Durkin and Brittany Lesage, hired an outside company to approve every new ingredient used at Thrive at Owen, a four-year-old dining room that’s free of the top nine food allergens listed is the Food and Drug Administration. They taught employees how to prevent allergens from entering the Thrive kitchen and developed a rotating menu that excludes staple ingredients like milk, eggs and wheat.

Next year they will repeat the process again so new students will have to deal with different dietary restrictions. “You think you’re dialed in, and then something new comes along,” Mr. Durkin said.

Running a food service at a university used to be pretty simple: there was an entree, a dessert, and maybe a salad bar. Today, dining halls must respond to a student population with increasingly diverse and complicated needs and preferences.

According to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.2 percent of adults in the United States suffer from a food allergy. However, this number only reflects medically diagnosed allergies and does not take into account all the restricted diets that many younger people follow.

Robert Landolphi, the associate head of the culinary department at the University of Connecticut, said two decades ago “you had a handful of peanut and tree nut allergies, and back then we had maybe two people on a gluten-free diet.” Nowadays, he said, subject More than 10 percent of those on a diet plan have some type of dietary restriction.

Unlike restaurants or school cafeterias, college and university dining halls must feed thousands of people and provide breakfast, lunch, dinner, and often midnight snacks. Students may also have no choice but to eat there, as meal plans are often required for those living on campus.

“We are your home, we are where you live, where you eat, where you spend time with your friends,” said Emily Svennevik, a registered dietitian at Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt has a cafe that bans the FDA’s nine most common allergens, another dining hall that is free of peanuts, tree nuts and gluten, and an app that allows students with allergies to order customized meals.

Other schools have taken similar steps. But some simply list the ingredients in their dishes or offer plenty of alternatives like gluten-free bread and dairy-free yogurt. Generally, students with lifestyle-related preferences will be referred to existing options, while students with severe allergies will submit medical documentation to receive special accommodations.

How far a meal plan should go to accommodate student nutrition is a subject of ongoing debate. Robert Nelson, chief executive of the National Association for College and University Food Services, said some dining hall managers argued that it would be better for students with allergies to learn how to navigate a traditional buffet, as they will have to do after they graduate.

However, many students said that it was not always easy to find an appropriate selection. That can be annoying when meal plans are mandatory and the average annual cost is $5,023 per student, according to a 2022 Department of Education report.

During the first semester of her sophomore year, Maria Bambrick-Santoyo, a Yale University graduate who has celiac disease, said there were only six days when she didn’t get sick from what she ate in the dining hall.

Students often swapped serving spoons, increasing the risk of cross-contamination, she said. In such a busy kitchen, it was hard to guarantee that no bits of flour would fall into an otherwise gluten-free dish. After sending emails to university management for several months, she was allowed to opt out of the meal plan.

“When you’re preparing food on such a large scale,” she said, “it would be unreasonable for me to expect them to do more than what they’ve already done, which is wiping down the counters, cleaning new pots and pans, and separate the dishes.” Ingredients.”

Erica Kem, who graduated from the University of Virginia in May, has a long list of allergies: tree nuts, seafood, peanuts, coconut, dairy, eggs, wheat, barley, sesame, beef, mustard and tomatoes. The last four were not addressed in the allergen-free dining room.

Staff offered to prepare customized meals for her, but they required several hours’ notice, and because of her busy schedule, she couldn’t always predict when she would eat. She couldn’t spontaneously decide to meet her friends in the dining room without first studying the menu.

“I would have to look forward and ask, ‘Would I actually like it?’ Is potential contamination worth it?’” she said.

If her parents, who live a two-hour drive away, had not regularly brought her home-cooked meals, she would have had difficulty feeding herself, she said.

Chloe Costell, a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, who is vegan, said she often eats dessert for dinner because the cafeteria no longer has vegan entrees. “In college, I started developing anemia,” she said.

Several dining hall managers and nutritionists said they would do their best to meet the needs of each student, but acknowledged that it could be difficult and costly to accommodate everyone — especially less common requests.

At the University of Connecticut, Mr. Landolphi recalled a student telling him that he only ate fish heads, offal and bone broth for animal protein – and that a similar menu should be served in the dining hall for student health.

After Mr. Landolphi explained that this was not possible, the student “agreed to eat fish we brought from Boston and beef from Maine. He adapted to our offers.”

On the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo, Calif., some students eat only grass-fed meat and organic produce and expect the dining hall to routinely provide for them, said Kaitlin Gibbons, the school’s registered dietitian.

“The reality is we’re not a restaurant,” she said. “We don’t serve individuals. We are not short-term cooks. So it’s natural for some students to be upset about this, especially if they’re on a restricted diet and don’t have enough options.”

Nevertheless, many students stated that they were satisfied with the offer.

Keira DiGaetano, a Vassar College graduate, vegan and allergic to sesame seeds and nuts, loved the Greek bowl in the dining room, served with tempeh and vegan tzatziki.

Katherine Ng, a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, said she appreciated that the online menu listed the possible allergens in each dish so she could plan ahead. “As a nut allergy sufferer, it was the friendliest for me,” she said.

“What is often more difficult for students with allergies is the pressures of the university environment, such as being alone in a new place and trying to adapt,” said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who studies allergies in college students.

“It’s also the time for college students when you think you’re invincible,” so students are more likely to take nutritional risks because they want to eat with their peers, she said. “You want to make friends, you don’t want to be different.”

To address some of these issues, last year two Northwestern students, Kethan Bajaj and Julia Auerbach, founded College Advocates for Food Allergy Awareness and Education, an organization that supports people with allergies.

The group has conducted on-campus training on how to use an EpiPen and hosted discussions among students with allergies. This year, they hope to work more closely with Northwest dining halls, which already have allergen-free stations called Pure Eats, on things like providing safer snacks on campus and placing toasters for gluten-free bread far away from other appliances.

But the group’s ambitions are even greater. Ms. Auerbach and Mr. Bajaj are already in contact with students at several other locations to set up new chapters. Their ultimate goal is to have allergen-free stations at every school.

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