Thursday, December 2, 2021

Spartans with food allergies learn to navigate MSU dining halls

October 27, 2021
<p>A variety of different foods assembled on a cutting board in a kitchen in East Lansing on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.&nbsp;</p>

A variety of different foods assembled on a cutting board in a kitchen in East Lansing on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021. 

Photo by Jillian Felton | The State News

When civil engineering freshman Max Meyers was considering which university to attend, a large factor was how accommodating dining halls were to food allergies. Meyers is allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and soy.

Michigan State’s dining options at Owen Hall stood out to him. The River Trail neighborhood location does not use any of the top eight food allergens — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy — in its dishes. 

“Thrive at Owen is just really good because it’s free of the top eight allergens and I love that,” Meyers said. “I didn’t see that in any other college that I visited, so that was just really, really nice.”

In terms of finding allergen-free food at other dining halls, MSU’s app, "Munch," can provide aid. On it, students can find the menu for each dining hall every day.

“A lot of times, especially having Celiac, I almost always check my phone for what the menu is for the different dining halls for the day and see what my best bet is,” James Madison freshman Isabella Iafrate said. 

Something else that students with food allergies cite as helpful in dining halls are the sheets placed at the beginning of each station indicating which allergen is in each food option. 

“I usually get scared when I’m going out to eat places because I’m like ‘Can I eat there?’” games and interactive media freshman Sam Voigt, who is allergic to tree nuts, said. “Here, I really don’t have to be like, ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ because it tells me what’s in each thing.” 

History education freshman Brooke Donovan, who is severely allergic to tree nuts, also utilizes this.

“If even one of the things they’re making in that place has nuts, I usually don’t go there just because of the cross-contamination,” Donovan said. 

Cross-contamination is a major concern for students as they can never fully know what has come in contact with the food they are planning to consume.

What can ease this concern is the allergen-specific microwaves and spaces that can be found in the dining halls. 

“I actually had a chef come up to me the other day when I was using the microwave and make sure that I was using the gluten-free products so it wouldn’t get cross-contaminated,” Iafrate said. 

Echoing Iafrate’s thoughts, Donovan provided more examples of ways dining halls attempt to avoid cross-contamination.

“I like that in the dining halls, I’ve seen small fridges that say ‘allergen-friendly,’” Donovan said. “They have separate cereal boxes over there too because most of the cereal is right next to each other and touching, so people who might be allergic to something in those have a separate cereal box to go to.”

Although there are always foods students with allergies can consume, human biology freshman Lauren Lewis said these options can be limited or become repetitive.

“Sometimes, I feel like I tend to not eat as much because I feel like I’m limited to not as many options as others,” Lewis, who is allergic to gluten, said. “I have a lot of more snacks and stuff in my dorm, so rather than eating in the dining hall, I’ve bought more groceries.”

Owen, being safe from the top-eight food allergens, is an option that is sure to provide more choices and less repetition to students with food allergies. However, for those who rely on Owen, its hours have recently changed as a result of the university’s staffing shortages.

“It’s definitely a lot more difficult, especially for people with nut allergies and stuff, that's their only safe option,” Iafrate said. “I think it closing early really disadvantages lots of people (whereas) South Pointe (at Case) dining hall doesn't close till 9.” 

Additionally, proper employee education on food allergens and the significance of avoiding cross-contamination is critical to the safety of Spartans who live with these allergies.

“If you go to Brimstone (in Brody), the cheeseburgers are always in the exact same spot, the chicken patties are always in the exact same spot, everything is put onto your bun with a different utensil,” Meyers said. 

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Sometimes, however, it can feel as though staff members need more training on food allergies.

“I don’t expect the people serving the food…to know everything about what’s in the food, but sometimes it's difficult because I’ll ask something and they straight up tell me, ‘I don’t know,’” Iafrate said. “It’s like, 'Well, I kind of have to know.'”

Similarly, students say that a better job can be done when it comes to allergens in desserts.

“Specifically for the dessert parts of the dining hall, I feel like if something does have one of the more severe allergens like tree nuts, I feel like they should have it more separated than other things,” Donovan said. “In (Snyder-Phillips), they have them right next to each other. They should have them on the side or have another section.”

Accommodating food allergies at a large university can present challenges, but Meyers said he appreciates the ease he has found navigating his allergies in MSU’s dining halls, as well as this being at the forefront of their mission.

“I feel like (MSU) gets that when people have food allergies, it’s a big part of their life,” Meyers said. “It’s something you gotta watch out for. ... I’ve had people say, ‘If you eat this, why don’t you just take an epi-pen after it?’ It’s something you’ll never fully understand unless you have it, so I feel like they just really understand it by giving us the option of having a completely allergy-free dining hall. I can go there with the complete peace of mind that I’ll be perfectly fine."

This story is a part of our Fall Housing Guide. View the full issue here.

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