Since 1997, the number of children in America that identify with having one of the eight major food allergens has increased by almost 50 percent according to foodallergy.org.  Along with that, the number of students living on a college campus with a major food allergens has increased as well. Dining Services at the University of Rhode Island, as well as many other colleges and universities, must work to create accommodations for these students.

However, students with major food allergens are not the only ones who need accommodations. Students can choose to be vegan, vegetarian, not consume dairy or gluten or stay away from fish, and these students need alternative food options as well. The real question that remains is whether or not Dining Services is doing enough to make those accommodations?

To assist Dining Services employees and students, Karen Orabona was hired as a full-time dietician for the University. Orabona assists students with dietary restrictions to acquire the necessary food items they may need, become comfortable with asking for assistance in the dining hall and present them with a variety of options that are safe.

“I take students for a tour of the dining hall to help them get comfortable with advocating for themselves,” Orabona said. “This way they can maneuver the dining hall on their own with a sense of empowerment as opposed to fear.”

In addition, Orabona takes the homestyle menus each week and personalizes it for each student. She takes out all the foods that contain a specific allergen or product so it only shows what the student is able to eat.

“I supply students with a weekly menu with items that are free from whatever their allergen happens to be,” said Orabona. “I have a list of 48 kids that are gluten-free and I send them a menu that has all of their allergen-containing foods deleted.”

Orabona and the Dining Services team also practice methods to avoid cross-contamination of foods and ingredients. Trainings are held to ensure that workers are properly educated of the risks and have the correct materials to separate foods.

The accommodation process begins even before pre-ordered food comes through the door of the dining halls. When choosing vendors, the University looks for anything with a “clean” label, meaning it contains the least number of allergens possible.

“We specify in our bids either a brand that we prefer, or that allergens cannot be added,” Associate Administrator of Dining Services, Jo-Anne Stephens, said. “We pay a little bit more, but we feel it’s our responsibility to do that.”

Stephens, Orabona and many others work together to make sure that there is a vegan or vegetarian option for students every night. Between the numerous stations at Butterfield and Mainfare dining halls and the salad and deli line, there are always numerous options for students with dietary restrictions or who choose to be vegan or vegetarian. In addition, both dining halls have a gluten-free pantry.  

“The stations we have, such as Fusion or Astro’s, all have vegetarian or vegan items,” said Stephens. “There is no way you cannot create a vegetarian or vegan option in our dining halls at any time.”

Students at the University have differing opinions over whether or not Dining Services does enough to make accommodations and provide for them.

“I can find food options every day, it’s never been an issue,” said freshmen Kaitlin Neville.

However, some students do not think the dining halls makes enough accommodations.

“I think that the dining halls accommodate people like myself, but it is limited,” said freshman Hannah Murphy. “I feel as though I eat the same things every night.”

Dining Services is beginning to hand-out surveys to students in an effort to provide more and healthier food options in the dining halls and at the retail dining locations.