Earlier this year the non-profit organization Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) launched a program to provide a safer college experience for students with food allergies.
FARE was formed in 2012 to work on behalf of the 15 million Americans with potentially deadly food allergies. As part of that mission, FARE is working to help colleges and universities develop uniform food allergy policies.
It's a situation that Davidson's dining services has been addressing for quite some time. Dee Phillips, director of dining services at Vail Commons, said, "We felt that providing a safe environment for students with food allergies is part of our mission."
Individuals with food allergies are a growing segment of the population. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that, between 1997 and 2011, the number of children in the United States with food allergies increased by 50 percent.
Incoming students at Davidson with medically documented food allergies are instructed to meet with Phillips, with dining services chefs, and with college nutritionist Elizabeth Allred to discuss the safest and healthiest ways to dine on campus.
Sometimes this process includes eating meals prepared on separate pans and plates. It could also mean simply asking a dining services employee about the ingredients in a particular dish. Phillips said that dining services tries to use recipes that are safe for everyone to create an inclusive dining experience.
To accommodate a student with a soy allergy, for instance, dining services switched its cooking oil to canola, which is non-allergenic. Dining services also provides gluten-free baked goods made with rice or corn flower, and chefs cook many meals from scratch in order to eliminate the use of potentially allergenic chemicals.
"Whenever possible, we want students with eating limitations to go through the dining process like everyone else," Phillips explained. "It's difficult enough to be a first year student, so we try to make food allergies one less thing they need to worry about."
Phillips attended FARE's first College Summit, which brought together representatives from 30 colleges and universities. Participants discussed food allergy policies, and plans that could help institutions that currently provide less-than-suitable environments for students with food allergies.
To emphasize the problems some students face, the FARE Summit arranged for participants to break into groups and dine at local Blacksburg, Va., restaurants under the premise that they all had different food allergies.
"Of the four groups, my group was the only one in which a diner would not have suffered a severe reaction due to an offending ingredient in the meals," Phillips explained. The experience underscored the importance of easy-to-use dining systems for those with food allergies, she said.
Furthermore, after a group of students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., sued their institution for inadequately accommodating their food allergies, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement that required Lesley to provide gluten-free and allergen-free dining options. Phillips said that agreement served as a warning for other universities who are not currently ensuring the safety of students with food allergies.
Phillips said she learned at the College Summit a few ways Davidson could do better to ensure food safety.
To streamline the process of welcoming incoming students with food allergies, she is planning an "Allergy 101" session to meet all students with special dining needs at one time. She also plans to increase employee awareness and training on food allergies, including proper food preparation techniques and understanding what may trigger an allergic reaction.
Phillips also previously invited a mother of a student with food allergies to talk to her staff. "Having a child with life-threatening food allergies is a very emotional issue for parents," Dee explained.
Ethan Faust, a first year student from Wellesley, Mass., has good reason to be thankful for the work of Phillips and FARE. Faust is severely allergic to a variety of ingredients, including peanuts, sesame, dairy and eggs. Yet he takes frequent advantage of the allergy-safe environment in Vail Commons.
Every meal Faust eats at Vail Commons is pre-prepared according to his menu and scheduling requests. "I've never had an issue with something that Commons cooked for me not being up to standard," he said. "Food safety processing has to be done in a way that accommodates individuals, since not everyone's allergies are the same. I'm always confident that the food they give me at Commons will be safe."
Faust chose to attend Davidson partly because he knew he would find a safe dining environment here. "During the college application process I realized that if I attended a bigger school I would have to cook for myself," he explained. "But I found out that Davidson would be able to accommodate my allergies."
Phillips, whose experience ensuring food safety at Davidson will inform FARE'S national food safety plan, shared a similar lesson.
"The FARE summit taught me to never assume your safety process is complete," she said. "Creating a food-safe environment is a constant journey, not a destination. You have to keep evolving, researching and learning."