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NDFS accounts for student allergies

Meg Mirshak | Thursday, September 13, 2007

For students with special dietary needs due to food allergies and autoimmune disorders, some foods in Notre Dame dining halls can be potentially life threatening.

Well aware of these dangers, Notre Dame Food Services (NDFS) offers customized meal plans for students.

Most requests for these services come from students with soy, dairy and peanut allergies, and those who require gluten-free diets, said Jocelyn Antonelli, manager of nutrition and safety for NDFS.

Antonelli works with dining hall managers and chefs to help coordinate meals for about 20 students with food allergies.

Two to three students per year, especially those with life-threatening allergies, have meals specially prepared for them. Antonelli makes about three shopping trips a week to buy specialty foods for the students’ meals. Students who have a meal plan do not pay any extra costs for these services. These students pick up their meals directly from the chef.

This year a student has requested Kosher meals, Antonelli said. The University partnered with a Jewish synagogue to prepare the meals, which the student will pick up in the dining halls.

A specific concern for students with peanut allergies, like junior Jessica Bruno and freshman Sarah Skillen, is the cross-contamination that can happen on the serving lines. As a result, they have learned to avoid certain foods that can contain peanut products.

Bruno has a severe allergy to peanuts and although she does not have meals specially prepared for her, she is very conscious about what she eats in the dining hall.

“When in doubt, I avoid it,” she said.

Some foods Bruno avoids include baked goods, pesto sauce and some cooking oils. She said she misses frozen yogurt, which she used to eat before dining halls switched to the YoCream brand, which is made in a factory that processes peanuts.

If a worker at Subway uses a glove to pick up a cookie and then uses the same glove to make Bruno’s sandwich, she could have an allergic reaction, she said. When she notices a problem with cross-contamination, she notifies Antonelli.

“NDFS is very responsive,” she said.

Bruno has never had to use the three EpiPens she carries in case she should have an allergic reaction on campus.

Skillen’s allergy is less severe. She sticks with simple foods in the dining hall and makes sure to check the ingredients. She also avoids baked goods, as well as Chinese food.

Freshman Michelle Gaseor has an autoimmune disorder called Celiac Disease which limits her diet to gluten-free foods. She cannot eat wheat, barley, oats or rye. Avoiding these foods is difficult for Gaseor in the dining hall, she said, because of the high possibility of cross-contamination.

“Walking into the dining hall for the first time, I saw wheat everywhere,” Gaesor said. “It was definitely frightening.”

During the first week of school, Gaseor met with Antonelli to plan a unique menu to fit her needs with prepared meals in South Dining Hall. She had to submit a schedule

of when she wanted to pick up her meals. If she wanted to eat at North Dining Hall, Gaseor could have it arranged but ultimately said she does not like to be bothered by it.

It was complicated at first, Gaseor said, but the chefs made it easier for her to eat with her friends in the dining hall.

“The chefs are pretty flexible, if you let them know ahead of time,” she said.

It is challenging for Gaseor to eat at Reckers because she cannot trust that her food will be gluten-free. She is familiar with Starbuck’s ingredients, however, and goes there often.

Currently, NDFS is considering creating a gluten-free area in North Dining Hall. However, there are still complications in eliminating cross-contamination from other students’ food, Antonelli said.

“Notre Dame has never said no,” Antonelli said. “We find a way.”

The services offered to students with special dietary needs help to ensure students get the full college experience, Antonelli said.

“It makes Notre Dame unique,” Antonelli said. “We believe strongly about eating together as a community.”