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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    Schools Offering Better Food Options for Students with Celiac Disease, Other Food Concerns

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Photo: CC-USDAgovCeliac.com 01/25/2012 - Perhaps due to a combination of public information efforts and higher diagnosis rates, but awareness of celiac disease, gluten-free and other food sensitivities is slowly spreading to schools across the nation. This reality, coupled with general student interest in a greater variety of healthier food options is driving a change in both vocabulary and offerings at campuses around the country.

    Go to many schools today, and you may hear terms like 'gluten-free,' 'celiac-friendly,' or 'allergen-free' thrown around liberally with more common standbys like 'kosher,' 'organic,' 'vegetarian,' and 'vegan.'

    Students are "becoming more sophisticated customers," says Joe Wojtowicz, general manager of Sodexo, Inc.'s Crossroads dining room at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest. These days, it's common for staff to field questions about food options before students even arrive on campus, especially questions about celiac disease, gluten-intolerance, food allergies and vegetarian preferences.

    For these students, access to accurate nutritional information is all the more important given their need to avoid foods that trigger allergies, Wojtowicz says. "All our menus are on the Web, and they click through an item to learn the nutritional content," he adds. "And we make sure we label our offerings if they contain nuts." These benefits extend to students with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, as well.

    Overall, more students are requesting foods that are more nutritious and healthful than in the past, says Travis Orman, senior director of dining services with Chartwells Educational Dining Services at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, which serves up to 3,200 meals a day. Students are also demanding more options. That means a change in even the most basic offerings.

    For example, many colleges are finding that students enjoy ethnic specialities. Orman says authentic Mexican is a favorite on his campus. "We honed in on the authentic cuisine and developed 8 to 10 options where the flavors just burst in your mouth. We launched Serranos Mexican Grill in September, and it's been very well received." Offerings include a burrito bowl taco, taco salad and barbacoa, a beef slow braised in garlic, lime, chiles and spices, then shredded, Orman says.

    Many college students prefer meat-free options, says Wojtowicz, so Crossroads always offers at least two to four vegetarian menu options, including cheese pizzas, grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese quesadillas. Other items, such as grilled Provencal vegetable sandwich or black bean and cheese quesadilla also appear.

    At CUC, Wojtowicz has responded to a growing interest in Mediterranean dishes with items like paella, spanakopita, Spanish tapas and other regional favorites.

    Some schools are taking food offerings to the next level by serving vegetables grown in local community gardens. North Central College in Naperville is among schools that has turned to harvesting a community garden to supply a portion of the produce for its dining operation.

    The North Central College Community Garden is now in its second year, and benefits from the efforts of nearby residents, who tend their own plots of land. Because of that support, those gardens "produce some of the fresh vegetables and fruits used in the college's salad bar and deli bar," says director of residence life Kevin McCarthy. The school then labels those items at the dining hall so that students know they are choosing sustainable options grown at the Community Garden.

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    Children who are allergic to corn, or other foods that are not included in the 'Big 8' foods that are considered allergenic, are out of luck. Corn allergy is totally ignored by the powers that be, even though we make many complaints about lack of recognition for our allergy. Corn is not even properly labeled to warn us that it is in foods we eat at home, so there is not much hope for the schools. Those of us with celiac or food allergies get the shaft, for the most part.

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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