Grabbing a bite to eat isn’t always a simple matter for the estimated 9 million adults in the United States that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says suffer from food allergies.
But at the University of Massachusetts, Director of Residential Dining Services Garett DiStefano and dietician Dianne Sutherland say they have been working on taking the stress out of mealtimes for UMass students who have dietary restrictions.
“If you have an allergy of any sorts, we want to make it such that we can accommodate you so that you can eat at a dining common with your friends, and not have to feel like you’re causing any problems,” DiStefano said.
It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the public started to become more aware of food allergies, according to Sutherland. This growing recognition and understanding of allergies has led to more diverse food offerings at the University’s dining commons, she said.
For example, as of this year, there is a gluten-free bar in every dining common, where students can get made-to-order meals.
“We try not to make the station a centerpiece of an allergy, but more blended in within the whole theme of UMass Dining, and by doing so, we are able to accommodate a lot of students,” DiStefano said.
UMass sophomore Tyler Appel is among those for whom food allergies can be life-threatening. Four years ago, a bite of salmon landed him in the emergency room.
Appel said that he has learned to live with his food allergies, but “the difficulty comes when trying to navigate around them.” He can’t eat milk, soy or seafood, as well as most fruits and nuts.
For Appel, offerings in the dining commons have been hit or miss. Some days he said he’s overwhelmed by the variety of food he can eat, but many times, he said, he walks into the dining commons and can hardly find anything.
“It’s very inconsistent,” he said.
Appel also said that he has seen some dishes mislabeled in the dining commons. Recently, while going through the taco line at the Franklin Dining Commons, he said he noticed that cheese had been spilled into the tomatoes. He said he avoided them because he didn’t want to risk an allergic reaction to the dairy. Appel also said that he has noticed ingredients in food that are allergens but are not included on the menu identifier cards above the dish.
DiStefano said that the UMass Dining staff takes allergen labels very seriously, and that any mistakes found should be brought to the management’s attention. Moreover, he said that chefs periodically spot-check food for cross contamination.
Both Sutherland and DiStefano stressed that students who are unsure whether a dish contains an allergen should ask a dining commons staff member.
“A simple question may make the difference between a student enjoying their meal, and having an issue,” DiStefano said.
According to Sutherland, students with multiple allergies are the most challenging to accommodate, but, she said, every effort is made to ensure that nobody leaves the dining commons hungry. Students with special dietary restrictions can request specific meals ahead of time if nothing on the menu suits their needs. The meal will be ready for the student when he or she arrives, according to Sutherland.
She said she also sends out information to students before freshman orientation and offers to meet with students in the dining commons, show them around and introduce them to the management staff. That way, she said, if they have a question or concern, they’ll know who to go to.
“The key is communication. If we do not know that a student has an allergy, intolerance or special dietary need, we can’t assist them,” Sutherland said.
She also encourages students to use resources available on the UMass Dining website, which include allergy-specific information, as well as a nutrient analysis tool which shows the nutritional breakdown of dining commons recipes.
At least one manager, supervisor and chef from UMass Dining services is always on duty at every dining common, according to DiStefano. He added that a student’s dining common is part of his or her community, and it is vital to keep an open line of communication between management and students.
Aviva Luttrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.