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Creating a Gluten-Free 'Safe Space' on Campus
By Hadley Turner

Kent State University introduces the country's first exclusively gluten-free on-campus dining hall.

When it comes to culinary offerings, there hasn't been a better time to be a college student. In the past several years, on-campus food options have expanded to meet students' demands for better quality and more variety. Websites like The Princeton Review collect current student data to rank schools' dining hall fare, allowing prospective students to factor in food when choosing their undergraduate destination.

The best dining programs for students, however, merge quality with meeting specific student needs. Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, is leading this charge with the nation's first exclusively gluten-free dining hall, Prentice Café. Located in the coed dorm Prentice Hall, Prentice Café used to be a traditional dining hall but was transformed into its current allergy-friendly form for the beginning of the 2016–2017 school year. It joins more than 20 other traditional dining halls and locations on Kent's campus.

This dining hall "creates a safe space. Anybody who has celiac [disease] or gluten intolerance or just lives a gluten-free lifestyle knows that they can come here and everything is completely gluten-free," says Megan Brzuski, RD, LD, the dietitian for dining services at Kent State.

The Gluten-Free Certification Organization, the food safety business group program of the Gluten Intolerance Group, has certified Prentice Café. The organization requires finished food served in the facility to contain less than 10 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Compared with the FDA's 20-ppm limit on foods labeled gluten-free, this is a strict standard indeed.1 Brzuski says staff spent this past summer scrubbing every inch of Prentice Café to get rid of leftover gluten particles in preparation for their certification.

In addition, according to Marlene Maneage, senior manager of Prentice Café, the staff was trained through the AllerTrain U program as well as Kent State's in-house training program. AllerTrain U is a 90-minute course specifically designed for foodservice staff at colleges and universities that teaches everything from basic information about food allergies to preventing cross-contact to emergency response if a student has an allergic reaction.

Meeting students' dietary needs is paramount, but it isn't, of course, everything. Luckily for students, flavor and variety aren't lacking in Prentice Café.

One of Prentice Café's highlights is its smoothie station, which features fresh fruits and vegetables along with healthful protein sources such as seeds from which students can build their own smoothies. "It's taken off greatly, and the students love it," Maneage says.

The café also boasts a taco and burrito station, a "classic" food station with traditional American fare such as burgers, an international station, a pizza station, and a grill station with sandwiches. Some stations offer "build-your-own" options including omelets and stir-fries, while others serve premade dishes.

The most popular meal by far at Prentice is its chicken bowl, a comfort food with layers of mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, and fried chicken strips. "The students actually request this and it goes like crazy," Maneage says.

Other examples of meals include cumin and lime shrimp; jerk pork with mango-cucumber salsa; coastal-style rice with broccoli, garlic, and lemon; and chickpea and vegetable Moroccan stew, which is a vegan option.

Maneage and Tracy Holzman, an executive chef at Kent State, are responsible for the majority of the menu planning. Maneage says that "what's seasonal, what we might be able to get locally, [and] what students might be asking for are the three top priorities" when planning the menus. They also rely on feedback from students in the form of comment cards or simply asking students directly, she says.

"I have had a lot of students and parents come forward and give ideas and suggestions for foods that our gluten-free students eat at home," Maneage says.

There's also a group on campus comprising vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free students who visit two dining halls per week to provide feedback on that week's offerings. Meal planners for each dining hall take their responses into account and plan menus accordingly.

As a whole, Maneage says feedback so far has been positive. "A lot of individuals who don't eat gluten-free have loved the food that they've tried. Our vegan and vegetarian populations have also given very positive feedback because there are more offerings than there were previously."

Brzuski agrees, and adds, "The students who need it definitely appreciate it." She recalls one comment from a student following a gluten-free diet: "She likes that this gives her a space now to bring her friends. They can all eat here safely together, whereas before she had to pick and choose where she went. Now, she's able to share the lifestyle with all of her friends."

— Hadley Turner is an editorial assistant for Today's Dietitian.


1. Foods labeled gluten-free must now meet FDA's definition. US Food and Drug Administration website. http://www.fda.gov/Food/NewsEvents/ConstituentUpdates/ucm407867.htm. Updated August 5, 2014. Accessed October 4, 2016.