Considering that researchers estimate 32 million Americans have food allergies these days, offering allergy-free dining areas on campus is more important than ever. To enhance student life and attract a greater number of prospective students with food allergies, colleges need to provide allergy-friendly dining options that allow students to feel safe, comfortable and included.
As the ultimate guide for colleges accommodating food allergies, this article will explain what an allergy-free dining zone is, the benefits of offering allergy-free dining zones on campus, menu ideas for avoiding allergens and viable serving options for keeping dining areas allergy-free.
What Is an Allergy-Free Dining Zone?
An allergy-free dining zone is exactly what it sounds like — a dining area that is intentionally free of the eight most common allergy-causing foods.
These eight foods account for 90% of all food allergy reactions. Designating an allergy-free dining zone is an effective way for campuses to cut down on the risk of a medical emergency.
The eight food allergies students are most likely to have are:
- Tree nuts, such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, almonds, pine nuts.
- Milk, most commonly in children.
- Fish, most commonly in adults.
- Shellfish, most commonly in adults.
A food allergy reaction sends someone in the U.S. to the emergency room every three minutes. This equates to 200,000 allergy-related emergency room visits per year. Creating an allergy-free environment is crucial to maintaining campus safety. Certain food allergies and celiac disease may even be classified as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, including eating.
A food allergy reaction occurs when the immune system mistakes a food protein for a threat to the body and produces an antibody in response to that food protein. This response prompts the immune system to release histamine and other chemicals that result in an allergic reaction whenever that food is eaten. An allergic reaction can inhibit swallowing, interfere with breathing or even induce anaphylactic shock, making it difficult for those with severe food allergies to eat regularly.
To avoid food allergy-related emergencies, higher education leaders should establish a campus-wide approach with clear policies and procedures for avoiding allergies. With the right accommodations and modifications, a campus dining area can stay clean of traces of common food allergens and prevent potential health scares.
For campus administrators and dining service coordinators to successfully manage food allergies, they should consider taking the following steps:
- Offering allergy-friendly food options at every meal
- Deeming certain areas on campus allergy-free dining zones
- Allowing students with food allergies to make modifications to mandatory meal plans
- Providing students with access to a specific allergy-friendly kitchen or food preparation area on campus to make their own meals
- Making information regarding food preparation and ingredients available to students through meeting with a campus dietitian or dining hall manager
- Posting nutrition facts on the school website
- Promoting individual diet counseling for students with severe food allergies
- Using canola or corn oil when cooking, as opposed to peanut oil
Along with implementing these procedures, colleges must be careful to avoid any cross-contamination between allergy-free dining zones and regular dining areas. Eliminating cross-contamination means campus dining hall managers must make sure all kitchen supplies used to make allergy-friendly foods don’t come in contact with any allergens. Keeping up with routine sanitation practices can help minimize the risk of cross-contamination.
The Benefits of an Allergy-Free Dining Zone
Because good dining options can significantly enhance the student experience, offering campus allergy-free dining halls comes with numerous advantages for institutions of higher education. Here are the top five benefits of having allergy-free dining zones on campus.
1. Improved Recruitment Efforts
Because college is often the first time students with food allergies will be living away from home and trusting people outside their family to prepare their meals, finding a campus with an allergy-free dining hall tends to be a top priority during the college search process. Parents, in particular, feel more at ease sending their kids to allergy-friendly schools.
Taking the necessary measures to create campus allergy-free dining zones is also an investment that will benefit places of higher education in the long run. Between 1997 and 2008, the number of children with a peanut or tree nut allergy more than tripled. This means more and more prospective students will be looking for colleges that accommodate food allergies in the years to come.
2. Increased Student Satisfaction
The dining hall is where many students go to meet up with friends or conveniently grab a snack in between classes. Because the dining hall is such a central hub for student social life, it’s important that every student feels safe to eat there. If students with food sensitivities don’t feel comfortable entering the dining hall, their overall college experience will suffer.
For a campus to best serve their students with food allergies, school leaders should actively solicit ideas from the students themselves. By having open and honest conversations with students who have food sensitivities, colleges can turn their campuses into safe environments in which everyone can feel safe and included in everyday activities. Additionally, sharing their input with school officials can help students with food allergies feel more valued by their campus community and satisfied with their college experience.
3. Higher Retention Rates
If students with severe food allergies feel as though they can’t fully and safely participate in everyday activities like eating on campus, they will not be inclined to stay at that college. However, when a school has allergy-friendly dining zones on campus and processes in place to continually learn about students’ food allergies, those with a food allergy will feel more comfortable making campus their home away from home.
By taking food allergy safety seriously and offering reliable dining options for food allergy sufferers, schools can help students feel more excited to return to campus each semester.
4. Competitive Edge Over Other Campuses
When a university goes above and beyond to provide its students with allergy-free alternatives, it stands out among other schools. While many colleges do the bare minimum of offering one allergy-friendly food per meal, a school that boasts an entirely allergy-free dining station can earn more recognition and a great reputation as an allergy-friendly campus.
From a business perspective, it is extremely beneficial for college campuses to be allergy-friendly to accommodate a growing population of students with food sensitivities. Offering dependable allergy-free dining options on campus can make a school more appealing than other schools that don’t have allergy-friendly dining zones.
5. Peace of Mind
Of course, student safety should always be the top concern for university leaders. Initiating allergy-free dining areas on campus is an effective way to protect students’ health and safety on a daily basis. When colleges take the necessary precautions to guard against cross-contamination and food allergy reactions, both students and staff members can feel more at ease each day.
What Does an Allergy-Free Dining Zone Menu Look Like?
To keep diners safe, an allergy-free dining area menu steers clear of the eight common food allergies listed earlier. With the proper training and preparation, any campus food service staff can cultivate an allergy-friendly environment.
Additionally, a menu free of the top eight food allergies doesn’t have to be dull, tasteless or boring. There are plenty of flavorful dishes without food allergens that a campus dining hall can offer its students. With so many allergy-free meals to choose from, a college dining service can even set up a rotating menu of allergy-friendly stations.
To get the creative culinary juices flowing, here are a few allergy-free ideas for each meal of the day that colleges accommodating food allergies can easily include in their regular services:
- Breakfast: Pork sausage patties, turkey bacon, hash browns, fruit salad, gluten-free oatmeal with toppings, avocado toast on gluten-free bread, orange juice
- Lunch: Plant-based bean chili, sandwiches using gluten-free bread, grilled chicken, salad, baked potatoes, vegetable soups
- Dinner: Turkey burgers on gluten-free rolls, spiced pork roast with brown rice, tacos on corn tortillas, roasted root vegetables
- Dessert: Flourless chocolate cake, frozen fruit bars, allergy-friendly cookies, crisped rice cereal treats, nut-free chocolate-covered fruit
- Snacks: Popcorn, fresh fruit, carrot and celery sticks, gluten-free pretzels, corn tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole
Colleges can also consider coming up with a color-coded system to indicate which of the eight major food allergies a dish contains. For example, any food that includes eggs could have a yellow sticker next to its dish description. By clearly marking each item, a campus dining center could expand its menu while making students aware of any potential allergens.
Following a color-coded allergen strategy can also prevent the possibility of overly restricting students. For example, it may not be necessary for a student who is allergic only to shellfish to avoid any other foods. Using colorful signs to note which food allergies a dish includes will allow that student to continue enjoying foods featuring any of the other common allergens without worrying about consuming shellfish.
Serving Options That Create Allergy-Free Dining Zones
There are a variety of ways that a college campus can present its students with allergy-free options. These are the main five strategies a university can use to provide a safe dining experience for those with food allergies:
- A dedicated pantry: A dedicated pantry is a shelving area or fridge located in a separate section of the dining hall that contains allergy-friendly options like gluten-free bread, plant-based milks, nut-free spreads, allergy-free snacks, etc. With a dedicated pantry, students with food allergies can pick up allergy-friendly items whenever they want.
- Pre-ordered meals: Allowing students with certain food sensitivities to pre-order their meals is a great way to make sure their food is prepared without any cross-contamination. Special orders alert the dining center staff to be extra careful while preparing the dish so the student can feel completely comfortable and safe eating their pre-ordered meal.
- Allergy-specific service stations: If eliminating all eight common food allergies from a dining area’s menu is overwhelming, a college can focus on creating areas that are free of one or more major food allergen. For instance, it may be simpler for some campus dining halls to offer one dairy-free meal station, one station that uses no wheat or soy and one station without any seafood. Alternatively, college dining halls could limit students’ exposure to common food allergies by creating stations such as a nut zone where all the peanut butter and other tree nut items are kept in one contained space.
- Self-prepared options: For the cooking-inclined, schools can offer allergy-friendly kitchen spaces where students with food allergies can prepare their own meals. Because many underclassmen dorms do not include a kitchen area, aside from maybe a microwave, students with food allergies may need access to quality cooking equipment to prepare an allergy-friendly meal.Some students with food allergies may also feel more comfortable making their own meals so they can ensure each dish is allergy-free.
- Meal plan amendments: Those with severe food allergies may not be able to take advantage of all the dining options included in a typical mandatory meal plan. College leaders should be understanding and flexible in making adjustments to the standard meal plan or exempting certain students from participating in a campus dining meal plan.
College campuses don’t need to be limited to just one of these allergy-friendly methods. Incorporating a combination of these dining options may be the best way to address food sensitivities from multiple angles. A campus that offers a dedicated pantry, allergy-free dining stations, kitchen access, meal plan amendments and the ability to pre-order meals helps students with food allergies feel that much safer and more at home.
Regardless of which allergy-friendly dining approach a college uses, the most important decision is choosing a reliable foodservice provider to work with. Colleges will need a transparent and dependable partner like American Dining Creations to supply allergy-safe meals for their students with food allergies. With a reliable partner, colleges can consistently offer students delicious recipes made with allergy-friendly ingredients.
The residential dining options American Dining Creations provides range from cutting-edge, trendy breakfast items, such as refreshing fruit smoothies and healthy breakfast sandwiches, to retro diner foods, like hand-pressed burgers and fries that never go out of style.
American Dining Creations also cooks up cuisine from around the world, including fusion dishes that incorporate flavors from multiple regions. With such a large menu selection, students will never get tired of their allergy-friendly dining options.
Partner With American Dining Creations to Create Allergy-Free Dining Zones on Your Campus
If you’re searching for a high-quality, dependable hospitality company to provide your campus with allergy-friendly dining options, American Dining Creations has the resources you need. With an exciting variety of allergy-friendly meal options and customizable meal plans for educational institutions, American Dining Creations can help your college accommodate a wide range of students.
At American Dining Creations, we pride ourselves on supplying our partners with fun, fresh menu items that are tailored to their individual needs. As both a hospitality and culinary company, we present on-trend, innovative food services that specifically suit our partners’ needs. We will work alongside your campus dining coordinators to provide the perfect allergy-friendly dining options for your university.
To discuss partnership options, contact us today.