Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, January 27, 2012

University helping students manage food allergies

For many students, college can provide exciting new freedoms. However, it also often presents a number of new and unexpected challenges. Students with food allergies often need help to manage their diet through the vast array of campus dining choices.

At U-M many professionals help students manage their food allergies. Kathy Whiteside, menu and nutrition information manager for Residential Dining Services (RDS) in University Housing, says that providing students with ingredient and allergy information and support is critical for them to be able to manage their own food allergies.

"For many students, college is the first time parents or other family members haven't been around to help manage food allergies," Whiteside says. "Our work is intended to provide assistance to students who are learning to manage their food allergies by giving them the information they need to make safe choices."

For many years, RDS has given students a wide array of menu options to accommodate special dietary needs. It also has been providing information about nutrition and food allergens, MHealthy dining guidelines, healthy-eating seminars and individual consultation with registered dieticians.

A year ago, RDS completed MyNutrition, an online tool available to all members of the university community, and began posting nutrition and allergen information for its residential dining menu choices. The system allows students to easily identify the ingredients of entrees being served at each dining hall on campus; this also empowers students with food allergies to see which menu items are safe to eat before they head for a meal at a dining hall.

And this past fall, RDS began listing common allergens on the nutrition information cards located next to the entrees in the dining hall serveries. The cards help ensure that students make informed decisions to better manage their allergies as they select their meal items.

Allergens now noted on the point-of-service cards include barley/rye, eggs, fish, milk, oats, peanuts, seeds, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat. Additionally, the cards provide macro-nutrition information and specify which dishes are vegetarian, vegan or recognized as healthy dining options by the campuswide MHealthy program.

The MHealthy program is an initiative aimed at creating a healthier campus community by encouraging healthier lifestyles through diet, exercise and other personal wellness activities.

University Unions also label the products made by their chefs with a complete ingredient list, and inform customers which products contain nuts, milk, flour, soy and other common allergens and irritants. Additionally, foods prepared by University Unions also are labeled as gluten free, locally produced, organic, kosher, vegan and vegetarian.

"Having all these resources is a great start for students, but I always encourage students to ask questions if they are ever unsure about whether a certain allergen is in a dish. There are staff across campus available to answer questions and to help them manage their allergies," Whiteside says.

Among other student resources offered at U-M, University Health Service has allergy services that include allergy testing, consultation and immunotherapy to help students navigate their way through their allergies.

"Students should know that we're here to help them learn about and manage their allergies in whatever way best meets their needs," says Dr. Ben Gold, who heads the allergy services at UHS. "Food allergies can be serious medical conditions and, as such, require the proper level of attention to ensure students are taking care of themselves."

The U-M Health System has the U-M Food Allergy Program, with specially trained physicians and a nurse coordinator to provide care for patients with food allergies or gastrointestinal intolerances. A registered dietician also is available to help patients and families navigate meal planning and ensure food-allergic children get the nutrients they need.

"Food allergies have reached epidemic proportions in the United States, affecting approximately 12 million Americans, and there is evidence that this problem is growing rapidly," says Dr. Marc McMorris, director of the U-M Food Allergy Program. "Residential Dining Services and Kathy Whiteside's phenomenal work to ensure safe campus dining for students with food allergies has given example by which many other institutions can learn."