Allergies and Special Dietary Restrictions Put College Dining Halls to the Test

For the staff of the Michigan State University dining halls, serving roughly 27,000 students each semester has never been a picnic. But these days, the job involves an even bigger challenge: One in six of those students has an allergy or other dietary restriction. Just five years ago, it was one in eight.

In the lead-up to this fall term, Kelsey Patterson, the school’s registered dietitian, responded to messages from 300 parents and students about dietary strictures that included life-threatening allergies and a host of special diets based on health, environmental, religious or personal concerns

To deal with allergies alone, two dining hall chefs, Jordan Durkin and Brittany Lesage, enlisted an outside company to approve every new ingredient used at Thrive at Owen, a four-year-old dining hall that’s free of the nine major food allergens listed by the Food and Drug Administration. They taught the staff how to keep allergens from getting into the Thrive kitchen, and devised a rotating menu that excludes basic ingredients like milk, eggs and wheat.

Next year, they’ll repeat the process all over again, for new students with a different crop of dietary restrictions to manage. “You think you have one dialed in, and then something new comes up,” Mr. Durkin said.

Several dining hall managers and dietitians said they do their best to meet each student’s needs, but acknowledged that it can be difficult and cost-prohibitive to accommodate all of them — especially the less-common requests.

At the University of Connecticut, Mr. Landolphi recalled a student who told him that for animal protein, he ate only fish heads, organ meats and bone broth — and that the dining hall should serve a similar menu, for the sake of student health.

After Mr. Landolphi explained that wouldn’t be possible, the student “agreed to eat fish that we brought in from Boston and beef from Maine. He adapted to our offerings.”

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