After a year of touring colleges and universities across the nation, Udi’s Gluten-Free has released their Top 10 Gluten-Free Accommodating Colleges list for 2015 – with the University of Connecticut taking the No. 1 spot for the second year in a row.
“We looked for schools that innovated and breathed new life into gluten-free food choices. We also considered labeling, ingredient information accessibility and designated allergen-free areas,” Udi’s said on its website.
UConn tipped the scales again this year with the expansion of items sold in campus cafes, the addition of One Plate, Two Plate and the opening of the country’s first certified gluten-free bakery on a university campus, according to Udi’s website.
“With each residential dining unit stocking gluten-free items and a full gluten-free menu available at the Food Court, The University of Connecticut doesn’t simply accommodate its large community of gluten-free students, staff and faculty: it celebrates them,” Udi’s said on its website.
But with the hundreds of students with Celiac Disease, gluten allergy or gluten sensitivity, it may be difficult to control the trace of gluten in such a large setting.
A post was written on UConn’s Buy or Sell Facebook page, asking gluten-free students what they thought about UConn taking No. 1. Within just a few days, the post received 41 likes and 31 comments, where students shared their thoughts and experiences, many tagging their friends.
“UConn is above many of the other schools that I applied to (for gluten-free), but being named number 1 is like winning the best of the worst,” said Emily Boucher, a 5th-semester pathobiology major.
Many schools that also made the list lacked the variety and ingenuity that gave UConn the top spot. Though the university ranked highest, Dining Services plans on more improvements, Culinary Manager Robert Landolphi said.
“I can't imagine how gluten-free students survive at other schools if UConn is No. 1. UConn still has a long way to go,” said Aliza Caterino, a 5th-semester allied health major.
Many students whom are dissatisfied with UConn’s placement on the list said that cross-contamination is a large issue in dining halls across campus. Students with Celiac’s disease held the most concerns, as so much as a wheat bread crumb can send their bodies into medical torment.
“UConn doesn't understand cross contamination. So while they may make food gluten-free I can't eat in the dining halls without some sort of gluten touching my meal and getting me sick,” said Leah Hazen, a 4th-semester business management major.
Dining Services is well aware of cross contamination, and they are working hard to combat it.
“Some people treat it as a joke, like it’s a ‘fad diet,’ and that really bothers me,” Landolphi said.
It is difficult to monitor things – such as the gluten-free designated toasters – when this mindset is at play, Landolphi said.
This past year, the university began using GlutenTox: a swap test process that detects gluten in foods, beverages and surfaces. The test kits detect the most toxic fragment of the gluten molecule both in separate recipe ingredients and in finished products, according to GlutenTox’s website.
“We’re going to start doing random tests this year to try to control cross contamination,” Landolphi said.
Another large stressor for gluten-free students, seems to be the lack of expertise dining staff has in preparing food properly, with a focus turned on toward student workers.
“Only one student worker in the dining halls has actually known how to properly handle my food. I definitely don't think student workers are trained well enough in how to prepare food when it comes to allergies since most of them I've talked to don't even know what gluten is,” Caterino said.
There are plans set to train student employees this year. At this time, only permanent staff are trained for allergies; but soon student managers will also receive training and will then train other student workers, Landolphi said.
“We’re trying to do a little of everything. We want to continue to grow and educate our staff,” Landolphi said.
Students with any kind of food allergy should seek a meeting with Dining Services. This meeting allows staff to work with students in order to design a meal plan that best suits their allergy. Food can be cooked in the back kitchen of any dining hall, where students can be certain that they will be prepared correctly, Landolphi said.
“The staff is wonderful. Ever since I was a freshman they were always happy to help and made sure I was satisfied,” said Danielle Watters, a 7th-semester strength and conditioning major.
Landolphi stresses that while food labels are present, eating from the regular dining lines does not completely guarantee safety from gluten. He wants students to understand that if they have food accommodations, Dining Services is more than ready to help.
“People tend to say ‘oh, I don’t want to be a bother,’ but you’re not bothering us! We want to focus on your dietary needs and help make you comfortable,” Landolphi said.
Amy Aisenberg, a 3rd-semester nursing major, said that while she had major issues with gluten in the dining halls last year, she is looking toward a more promising experience with food after her meeting with Dining Services.
“My number one tip for students is to be proactive and stick up for yourself in the dining hall, and you will see changes,” Aisenberg said.
While students held mixed reviews about UConn’s gluten-free dining experience, it has come a long way and will continue to make strides in the gluten-free community.
“(It is) truly an honor to attend a university with such an ongoing tradition in both college basketball and bountiful gluten-free options,” said Steven Roncaioli, a 7th-semester allied health major.