Updated: Sep 13
Congratulations to Cornell University for winning 2018 Best Overall Food Allergy Program for Universities! Cornell also ranked #4 this year in the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food.
Cornell Students responding to our Celiac College Student Survey had this to say...
“We have a dedicated GF dining hall and gluten free sandwiches and other individually packaged snacks available across campus”
“Cornell is amazing at accommodating gluten free diets (for celiacs). All dining halls have little food labels that say if they contain any allergens. One of the dining halls I go to (Appel) has a full gluten free section. The Risley dining hall is a 100% gluten free dining hall, where I eat almost every day. It is amazing!!”
So just how does Cornell serve 22,000 meals/day to over 10,000 diners at 28 locations with 400 full time and 600 student staff and still provide quality food for students with celiac disease and food allergies?
Cornell made a splash two years ago with their announcement that one dining hall had already been gluten and nut free for a semester and nobody had noticed. However, the effort is much broader than providing one safe haven. “Cornell’s success at meeting needs of students with food sensitivities is consistent with our longstanding mission of providing a great student dining experience to all students in any capacity,” says Michele Lefebvre, Director of Nutrition Management.
Since Lefebvre originated her nutrition management position at Cornell ten years ago, the number of students with allergies, celiac disease, and gluten intolerance has grown exponentially. She began meeting with fewer than ten students per year and now meets with hundreds, not including the many students who choose to manage diets on their own. Students book counseling sessions with Lefebvre online for everything from learning how to manage a special diet away from home to finding dining options near their classes. A NetNutrition app also helps students find healthy choices.
Student Disability Services (SDS)
Lefebvre highly recommends that all incoming students with food sensitivities register with Student Disability Services (SDS), which she says is “ often the students’ best advocate”. As Cornell’s website states, Student Disability Services “works in partnership with Cornell faculty, staff, and students to ensure that all aspects of student life are accessible, equitable, and inclusive of individuals with disabilities.” It is critical that students speak up about their needs. When one graduate student with an anaphylactic peanut allergy told Lefebvre that the bowls of peanuts served during career fairs made him scared to shake hands with prospective employers, Lefebvre contacted SDS, and they had the peanuts replaced with safe snacks. SDS can also contact professors to allow a student with celiac disease time to recover after a gluten exposure.
Cornell Dining is self-operated with no third-party food service. The mission statement for Cornell Dining reads “We are committed to serving high-quality foods that are healthy and creatively prepared with genuine care for a diverse community”. The campus chefs are passionate about keeping students safe and well fed. “One of my chefs just called to ask if I knew which students with food sensitivities would be staying on campus during our February break so that he could make sure they had enough options available”, says Lefebvre. Being proactive in addressing students’ dietary needs is part of what makes the Cornell Dining culture stand out.
Even before Lefebvre approached Kevin Grant, Chef Manager at Risley Dining, about eliminating gluten and nuts from his dining hall, he had been removing gluten from select stations to meet the growing demand. His cooks were excited to implement Lefebvre’s vision, saying it would be easier for them to keep students safe without gluten and nuts in the facility. “My staff members all bought into it,” said Grant. During the summer of 2016, Grant did all the sanitation and equipment replacement needed to ensure a safe kitchen. He re-designed menus, trading bagels and pizza for naturally gluten-free items, to focus on maximizing flavor. “By changing some techniques, like roasting and caramelizing the vegetables, nobody talked about what they didn’t have.” Grant said. Diners were already enjoying Risley’s 100% gluten and nut free food for a full semester before the new regimen was announced in January 2017.
“Risley has seen an increase in business since we went gluten-free, not just because of allergies, but because they like the food we are offering,” says Grant. “Many of the students still don’t realize” that Risley restricts its ingredients. Eliminating gluten and nuts has made his staff more relaxed, as there is less demand for special meals. Grant continues to create naturally gluten-free stations that can be replicated elsewhere on campus. Recently, a Risley student manager from Hawaii helped him introduce poke bowls to the dining hall. Grant also supplies twelve grab-and -go locations across campuses with well-labeled pre-packaged salads and sandwiches for students that are unable to make it to Risley Dining in person. For a handful of students with extremely complex food sensitivities, Grant prepares meals in an allergen-free kitchen in his office.
Importantly, both Grant and Lefebvre say the other dining halls on campus also do a great job with dietary restrictions. “Everyone is so well trained up here. Their job is harder than mine because they don’t work in a dedicated environment” says Grant. Cornell Dining has a training coordinator that oversees all dining staff through AllerTrain training. Freshmen reside on north campus and are nearly all on the meal plan. In addition to Risley, which is closed on weekends, north campus hosts two more of Cornell’s seven all-you-care-to-eat dining halls: Northstar Dining (often called Appel by students) and Robert Purcell. New students are encouraged to tour the dining halls when they arrive. “Some students with food sensitivities prefer not to raise any attention to themselves, while others are only comfortable being handed a meal by a chef that was specially prepared,” says Lefebvre. “We try to address these different approaches.”
At Risley, students who cannot have nuts or gluten can walk in and grab whatever food they want. In Northstar Dining Room, food is thoughtfully selected, arranged and labeled for the top 8 allergens. By simplifying and “containing” allergens, the risk of cross-contact is greatly reduced. The entire salad bar is nut and gluten-free, and other allergens like eggs, dairy, fish and soy are put at the end of the line. Certified gluten-free oatmeal keeps the oatmeal station gluten-free. The char grill station, which rotates grilled meats and vegetables, is also free of the top 8 allergens. Options are rotated across the stations to provide variety. There are three separate dedicated toasters: one gluten-free, one nut free, and one top 8 allergens free. There are kosher and halal stations as well. At Robert Purcell, students can email and pre-order special meals two hours beforehand.
Advice for Other Schools
What do Grant and Lefebvre recommend to other schools trying to better address food sensitivities? Grant says it is critical to have the right people involved in the details of ordering and receiving products and staff training. “Every part along the way has its checks and balances,” explains Grant. He gives Lefebvre much credit and recommends other schools have someone in her role to make their program successful. “She had already looked at the vendors, and sourced the products, like gluten-free french fries, ahead of time, and made sure proper training was in place.”
Lefebvre says teamwork among dietitian, disability services, and dining services is key. At a minimum, schools must commit to accommodating students and can start by providing individual safe stations. Schools can then move towards providing a more complete service. When Lefebvre was awarded 2018 Best Overall Food Allergy Program for Universities, she summed up Cornell’s journey: “We have worked diligently over the years to establish a strong program that puts our students and their health first… Everything we do to keep our guests safe, from careful allergen labeling, to gluten-free and allergen-free stations in several eateries, to our 100% gluten-free dining room, has evolved from that commitment to individualized care.”
Thank you, Michele and Kevin, for taking the time to speak with me and for helping Cornell meet the gluten-free and food allergy challenge with style. Let’s hope other schools are inspired to follow your lead!
How well does your school meet the challenge? Current or recent college graduates with celiac disease or food allergies please complete our GFF College Dining Survey!