For students with food allergies, eating in the college cafeteria hasn't had much to offer. It usually means sticking a meal in the microwave.
"It wasn't the best, but it worked," said Joel Hochman, a student at Tulane University who lives with celiac disease, a disorder that prevents him from eating gluten, which is found in some grains.
Now, Hochman has a better option. This month, Tulane's Bruff Commons dining hall opened a separate line that serves fresh food prepared to safety guidelines designed to prevent allergic attacks or illness. Sodexo, the company that runs the cafeteria, claims it is the first allergen-free fresh food option at a Louisiana university.
Called Simple Servings by Sodexo, the allergen-free serving line features two fresh meals twice a day — usually a meat with a vegetable and a gluten-free carbohydrate, said company dietitian Kelsey Rosenbaum. It's similar to other lines at the dining hall that serve pizza, sandwiches or burgers.
"It is set up very similar to other stations in Bruff Commons, and so students can get hot, safe meals and still dine very easily with their friends," Rosenbaum said.
The number of students diagnosed with food allergies is rising. Between 1997 and 2007, reports of food allergies went up 18 percent among those younger than 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, 4 out of every 100 children have food allergies.
Now that generation of children is going to college, and schools are taking notice.
Before implementing the Simple Servings option, the dining staff at Tulane's Bruff Commons would prepare 200 plates per day for students with food allergies or celiac disease. They were kept in a refrigerator, and students could warm the plates in a special allergy-free microwave.
For Hochman, a freshman from Massachusetts who doesn't cook, that was usually his only option. His friends, however, would be chowing down at the food court, which had sushi, Tex-Mex and a Panera Bread restaurant.
At Simple Servings, the options include chicken jambalaya, Carolina pulled pork, coleslaw and mushroom chili. The dishes don't have seven of the top eight allergens that cause 90 percent of allergic reactions, and they are all gluten-free. Fish is a common food allergy, but it is served because "it's a great source of lean protein," Rosenbaum said.
Before implementing the Simple Servings option, food servers and cooks had to undergo training through the AllerTrain course to learn the correct procedures for creating food safe for people with food allergies. Simple Servings has its own preparation area to prevent cross-contamination with other food, and all the tools and appliances used for the line are colored purple, the "universal color" for food allergy and intolerance, Rosenbaum said.
Now that Hochman has tried the allergen-free offerings, he's pleased.
"It’s a lot better because it’s fresh and right off the warmer," he said. "It doesn’t have that reheated taste to it."