In late May, at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, Ill., Michigan State University (MSU) was announced as the recipient of the 2017 Best Overall Food Allergy Program Award from AllerTrain™.
“From changing ingredients to remove potential allergens, to implementing nut-friendly dining halls, to the extreme personal care taken by their campus dietitian, it’s clear that MSU’s food allergy program is one of the most comprehensive we’ve seen and deserving of the 2017 Best Overall Food Allergy Program for Universities Award!” said Betsy Craig, chief executive officer of MenuTrinfo®.
A leading food allergy and gluten-free training program, AllerTrain™ by MenuTrinfo® honors one restaurant or university with the most comprehensive and effective food allergy program that is at the forefront of serving diners with special dietary needs, including food allergies, intolerance and celiac disease.
MSU has shown long-term dedication to ensuring those dining on campus have safe choices and are well nourished when they Eat at State. “Our team is committed to providing a safe dining environment and diverse options for all university guests,” shared Guy Procopio, Culinary Services director. “We strive to set the industry standard for allergen safety, training and education, and this recognition supports our goal to lead with food, offering made-to-order items to suit every guest’s unique palette.”
Registered dietitian Gina Keilen, who joined the Culinary Services (CS) team in 2012, works alongside chefs and dining managers to create a personalized experience for students, faculty, staff, conference attendees and other diners. “The prevalence of allergies on campus continues to climb each semester, and while there was awareness of allergies before I came to MSU, it wasn’t nearly at the forefront like it is today,” she expressed. “Since then, staff has become more knowledgeable on what allergies are and how to work with them; there is consistency among the dining hall offerings; and there is healthful, nutrient-dense options for people with an array of allergies.”
Over the past two years, to further their knowledge, more than 600 full-time and student team members from CS and Spartan Hospitality Group (SHG) completed either the AllerTrain™ Lite or AllerTrain™U courses. Accredited by the American National Standards Institute, the programs teach participants about food allergies, intolerances, and celiac disease; precautions to take in the front and back of the house to prevent reactions; and how to recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction and handle it properly.
Beyond thoroughly training staff, accommodations are made throughout campus to cater to the growing amount of students with food allergies or dietary restrictions. All nine dining halls feature a standalone station for allergy-conscious needs. This includes gluten- and dairy-free items, along with options to help supplement an allergy diner’s meal. Holmes Dining Hall and Holden Dining Hall are nut-conscious, creating a space on both ends of campus where menu items are free of coconut, tree nuts and peanuts.
There are menu signs at every point of service that highlight what is being served, along with which allergens are present in that item. The Culinary Services team identifies the top eight allergens on residential dining menus (milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and wheat), along with coconut, sesame, alcohol, beef and pork. Additionally, SHG indicates gluten-friendly options available to their guests.
Collaboration with the purchasing team at MSU Food Stores has played a key role in creating sourcing standards and eliminating allergens as well. Together with Keilen and the CS chefs, they look to source products with cleaner labels and fewer allergens. Many ingredients have been revised throughout the years to allow for more allergen-free menus.
Chefs and Keilen are accessible to students, offering face-to-face meetings, sending individualized text messages and citing that they’re an email or phone call away if assistance is needed, even going as far as making individualized menus, as needed. When equipped with the right information and resources, students with food allergies or other restrictions have a high level of comfort navigating the dining halls.
Hana Ohlrich, who was diagnosed with celiac disease before starting her freshman year, reached out to Keilen before move in. In response, she received customized information about her options and she was connected with managers and chefs in South Neighborhood, which included her future home, Wilson Hall. “Thank you for taking the time to write your email; it really eased my worries about eating on campus,” she replied. “Not many people take the time to help with celiac and it really meant a lot to know that MSU has someone who cares.”
“As challenging as it can sometimes be, hearing from a student that they were able to enjoy a meal, or a parent that we gave them a sense of peace and reassurance, that they chose MSU because of the accommodations available, or how we happily surprised them with the personalization and options especially considering our size, makes it worth it,” Keilen concluded. “I received an email from a student recognizing a full-time cook and when I showed it to her, it brought tears to her eyes. A lot of our staff get to know students and guests on a personal level, and it starts feeling like they are serving food to family.”
To educate the general campus community, Keilen and student interns organize wellness events throughout the neighborhoods at MSU and in conjunction with Resident Assistants in the halls. Those dining on campus also have an online tool at their disposal, MSUtrition, which provides allergen filtering options, ingredients and nutrition facts for a majority of what is served throughout campus each day.
This fall, CS will pilot a new “clean” eating menu at The Vista at Shaw Hall in River Trail Neighborhood. This venue will cater to the current trend of the student’s desire for wholesome food over processed, adding to the mix of menu items available to satisfy the diverse preferences of those who eat in the dining halls.
Culinary Services and Spartan Hospitality Group are departments within the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services at Michigan State University. The division’s goal is to deliver outstanding Spartan experiences in all its endeavors by following a core set of values that guides all business practices and decisions.