Dining halls enhance gluten-free menu

One year after its efforts began, the Food and Allergy Awareness Committee has been organized.

Peggy Connors, associate director of University Housing, said the committee wants to raise awareness to students who live with celiac disease or other allergies that require a gluten-free diet by letting them know the university has an abundance of resources for them.

Celiac disease is a condition triggered by gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. When gluten is consumed, the immune system damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents the nutrient absorption, according to celiaccentral.org.

Connors said the committee wants to spread the word nationally that SIU can meet students’ specific dietary needs.

Alex Hutchinson, a junior from Johnsburg studying marketing and committee member, said the committee officially formed two weeks ago and has nine members so far, but he hopes it will continue to grow and include students with all types of food ailments.

Hutchinson said he came to SIU after his older brother, Bob, attended the university in 2009 and became the first student University Housing made gluten-free accommodations for.

“The hardest part for me was convenience because I was the first and only student who let them know I needed gluten-free food at the time,” Bob Hutchinson said. “They didn’t always want to prepare separate food for one person.”

He said things have significantly improved since his first year, and he has a relationship with each member of the kitchen staff. Bob Hutchinson said he now lives off-campus but still purchased a 20-meal plan so he could eat in the dining halls.

“Bob was the first student they purchased specific groceries for, and since then the food options have grown substantially and allowed us to even have a pantry for our food,” Alex Hutchinson said.

Katrina Hagen, a sophomore from Haymarket, Va., studying animal science, said she transferred from Bridgewater College specifically because of SIU’s gluten-free menu.

“The college I was attending didn’t offer many accomodations for me until towards the end of the school year. By then I had already found out that SIU had an entire gluten-free pantry for students,” Hagen said. “I never would have even considered coming to Illinois if it weren’t for SIU offering the accomodations I need.”

Ryan Bukowiecki, a senior studying history, said he is lactose intolerant and joined the committee to offer his input on accommodations for students with his condition.

“The committee wants to reach students of all food-related ailments,” Bukowiecki said. “Lactose intolerance is more manageable but still requires us to carefully watch what we eat.”

This year, SIU admissions applications asked students for the first time if they have any food-related allergies. Jim Gilmore, a chef for University Housing, said there are approximately 4,000 students who live on campus. He said 43 of them have informed Housing of their allergies, but the committee believes there may be many more.

Both Trueblood and Lentz dining halls have created a separate area for gluten-free food preparation, Gilmore said, which includes a variety of food choices, a refrigerator, microwave, toaster and deep frying pan.

“We wanted students with allergies to have their own area full of food where they could come and prepare whatever they would like and not have to worry about their food cross-contaminating with non-gluten-free food,” he said.

Gilmore said he is creating an entirely converted menu so all students can eat the same foods, and 30 percent of the University Housing kitchen staff has been trained to prepare gluten-free food.

“Instead of substituting ingredients in foods, I’m converting so that it can taste the same but be 100 percent gluten-free,” he said.

Hutchinson said it’s important to meet students’  dietary needs because the lifestyle is mandatory for some of them. He said he wants students to feel comfortable enough to come and talk to the committee members because they are all experiencing the same things.

“This is not a preference for us. It’s not something we chose to have to do everyday,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle and something we have no choice but to do.”

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