Food Allergies Welcomed
Living with food allergies on college campuses has definitely improved since I graduated in 2011. More universities are finding better ways to accommodate individuals with dietary restrictions. My alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, is one of those universities. In the fall, CMU will be opening Nourish, an allergy-friendly kitchen on campus. In this blog post I ask Jessica Tones, Dining Services Registered Dietician at CMU, some questions about this very important initiative.
Q: How large is the food allergy community at CMU?
A: Obtaining an accurate number of community members living with one or more food allergies has been one of our biggest challenges. There are about 25 first-year students who report food allergies or celiac each year. Based on this estimate, we have about 100 undergraduate students with reported food allergies on campus, but this does not capture graduate students, faculty, and staff populations, or unreported food allergies. Through surveys and tabling around campus, many additional community members have shared that they either have a food allergy or food intolerance, and are looking forward to Nourish opening in the fall.
Q: What made CMU decide to open an allergy-friendly kitchen? Are there many other universities that offer adjusted menus?
A: We know that food allergies are more common than ever; according to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), 1 in 13 people in the U.S. have a food allergy. Additionally, some people live with varying intolerances to foods, or simply avoid foods like dairy or gluten as a lifestyle choice. Dining Services has recognized the need for a space that prepares food without any of the top eight allergen-containing ingredients (milk, wheat, soy, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish and shellfish) or gluten. As a dining program, this allows us to have a greater level of confidence in preparing safe, delicious food for the members of the CMU community with special dining needs. Many universities have some type of allergy accommodations, ranging from made-to-order meals to completely gluten- or peanut-free dining halls. To our knowledge, we will be the only university with a kitchen fully dedicated to foods prepared without any of the top eight allergen-containing ingredients and gluten.
Q: How long has Nourish been in the works?
A: Over the past several years, Dining Services has focused on improving resources for the allergen community. This specific project was pushed forward by two events: new construction on campus created the space in the Cohon Center, which will be repurposed for a dedicated facility, and my hire in July 2016.
Q: What is the overall vision for Nourish? Will the allergy-safe food options be available in all of the campus dining locations?
A: Nourish meals and food items will be offered at many of our dining locations across campus and offer made-to-order meals for pick-up at the Nourish kitchen during operating hours. A commissary kitchen, Nourish, will produce a variety of grab-and-go offerings that will be available at Entropy+ (campus convenience store in the Cohon Center), Carnegie Mellon Café (Resnik), Rothberg’s Roasters II (Scott Hall), The Maggie Murph Café (Hunt Library open 24 hours), and Heinz Café (Hamburg Hall). Additionally, students, faculty, and staff will be able to use GET food to order food online or from a mobile device for pick-up at Nourish, which will be centrally located on the second floor of the Cohon Center, near Rangos Ballroom.
Q: As someone who has many food allergies, I know safe meals can start to feel redundant. How extensive of an allergy-safe menu will be offered? Will the menu rotate?
A: We designed the Nourish menu so that it has something for everyone! Community feedback showed that simple, healthy foods are in high demand, but that comfort food favorites should be an option as well. The foundation of the menu will be fresh, minimally processed, single-source ingredients such as lean proteins, gluten-free whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Our goal is to provide nutrient-dense offerings that appeal to everyone, not just individuals with special dining needs. Nourish will produce many nutritious salads, sandwiches, bowls, bento boxes, snacks, and reheatable entrees for the health-conscious consumer, as well as burgers, grilled cheese, mac and cheese, and pizza. Furthermore, since the space will have no dairy or egg-containing ingredients, there will be a number of vegan offerings daily.
Q: Is the staff of Nourish specially trained in food allergies?
A: Yes – anyone working in the space will go through an extensive training program. There will be clear protocols in place for every step of the food production process — from purchasing, receiving, storage, and transport, to preparation, packaging, and cleaning. We are currently in the process of vetting all of the ingredients that will be used in the space to ensure that nothing is processed on shared equipment or in a facility that processes any of the top eight allergens or gluten.
Q: Are there other resources on campus for students with food allergies? If so, what are they?
A: Yes. Currently all dining locations are required to post allergen sheets in their locations that identify the presence of the top eight allergens for each menu item. Students who need counseling or medical nutrition therapy to help them manage their food allergy can meet with the Registered Dietitian at University Health Services. I work for Dining Services exclusively, so I help students navigate their food choices on campus. This often includes a meeting with the chef(s) so that we can work together to plan meals for students with food allergies. We always have a few students who have a number of food allergies that do not include the top eight, so we will continue to work with these students to prepare custom meals.