Interview with Gina Keilen, Registered Dietitian, Culinary Services, Michigan State University
Nearly half of all college students today avoid at least one food allergen, according to a report listed in our Spring 2020 issue of Trends in Higher Education. As the number of students with disclosed food allergies continues to rise, allergen-free dining has become a key consideration in creating a healthy and inclusive campus—as well as in recruitment and retention efforts.
Recently, Michigan State University opened an allergen-free dining hall on its campus called Thrive. We caught up with Gina Keilen, Registered Dietitian, Culinary Services, at Michigan State to learn more about the planning process and how her team’s efforts are positively impacting the campus community.
I was hired at Michigan State in 2012 as Culinary Services’ first dietician. Since that time, we’ve taken a hard look at what we offered students with food allergies or other restrictions, such as those based on religion. What I discovered was that while we are very good at making accommodations—for example, preparing made-to-order food, adjusting recipes to limit allergens, offering condiments in individual sealed packages, posting menu signs listing allergens and having ingredients available, etc.—what we didn’t offer was an inclusive dining experience all students could feel comfortable sharing.
As I saw the number of individuals contacting me increase about 175 percent per year, most of whom disclosed having two or more food allergies—and as I talked to parents worried about the safety of their student on campus—we realized we could, and should, do more. That was the driving force behind Thrive.
For us, it was dealing with the unknown. Michigan State is the first public university to offer a fully certified allergen-free dining hall, so we were exploring uncharted territory. The original plan was to make a single venue in the dining hall allergen-free. But as we planned, we realized we wanted to further limit any potential risk, so we decided to make all three venues in the hall allergen-free. Another challenge was changing the mindset of what allergen-free means: some thought it was vegan, some thought healthy, and others wondered how we could ever make a full menu void of the top eight allergens plus gluten. To be certified free from allergens, we also had to look at our standard operating procedures differently: How do we handle uniforms? How do we work with vendors? How about those who work on our equipment? Fortunately, I had a great team committed to the process.
While I knew we were doing a good thing, I didn’t realize the extent of the impact Thrive would have both on campus and beyond. We’ve had excellent marketing and press, and that’s led to interest from across higher education, with people coming to tour and learn more about what we’ve created. It has also had an impact on current students, as some are choosing to stay on campus because of this option, and on recruitment, as high schoolers with food allergies are more actively searching for college campuses where they know they will be safe and making their decisions about where to attend college based on that.
We collaborated with a number of units on campus as part of the planning process, including housing, disability services, facilities, and various academic units, as well as campus security. We also worked with Neogen (allergen testing), MenuTrinfo (food labeling and safety), and Kitchens with Confidence (food allergen auditor and safety certifier) to guarantee an allergen-free dining experience free of cross-contact.
I don’t think the number of students with disclosed food allergies will go down any time soon, so it’s important to start conversations about how to respond now. Even if you can’t go as far as opening an allergen-free dining facility or venue, it’s important to talk with students and be open to their needs. It’s also important to keep in mind that this issue affects more than dining services—be mindful of the full student experience on campus for those with allergies.
We’ve seen our team members transform through this effort as they see the impact they are having on our students. It’s been amazing to see students with food allergies realize they cannot only survive on campus, they can truly thrive. We are able to give students the opportunity to dine in a way some have never imagined possible, especially at a collegiate level.