When arriving at Texas Tech, whether as a new student or a returning student, figuring out what to eat on campus can be difficult. An allergy or an intolerance to a food can make choosing even more difficult.
“We have seen such a growing need for dietary support,” Mindy Diller, unit manager at Tech Hospitality Services, said. “I do one-on-one meetings with students. I even do more intense allergy training. I usually meet with them and their parents or guardians before they transition to Tech.”
About one in ten adults have a food allergy or an intolerance of some kind, Diller said.
“Let’s just take the freshman population living on campus, 8,300,” Diller said. “So, I suspect we’ll have at least 800 dietary restrictions or more. Students don’t normally share that, but we need them too.”
The actual reason behind an increase in these allergies and intolerances is largely unknown and debated, Allison Childress, assistant professor and director of Online Master's Program, said.
“I think for every person it’s different. What’s most interesting is that a lot of those food allergies we grow out of, especially once we hit puberty age,” Childress said. “A lot of times we can grow out of those food allergies, which is good. The thing we have to be most careful of with dieticians though is watching those people who have food allergies and make sure they replace those nutrients they’re missing.”
An allergy is an immune response from the body, such as itching, hives and rashes, Childress said. An intolerance is when the body lacks the enzyme to break down the food, such as gluten or lactose in dairy.
“I think the hardest thing for people who have food allergies is determining what’s in food and always being afraid that they’re going to eat something that they can’t have unknowingly,” Childress said. “There’s just so many different ingredients in foods now that it’s just hard to decipher what ones may have allergens in them and which ones won’t.”
Understanding which foods are safe is a process Diller said she and the department work to make less difficult.
“When I first came to the university in 2014, there weren’t a whole lot of gluten-free options,” she said. “We have our naturally gluten free foods for students, but most people don’t understand what that is or know what it looks like. We really try to highlight those menus. Our online menus have allergy and contaminant columns of the big eight allergies. We will list things like pork, in case someone needs to avoid it for religious reasons, and sesame as well.”
Diller has led more extensive allergy training for the hospitality staff and chefs, she said. The training has brought in changes to food production and storing.
“A few of the biggest changes we made were in terms of adding in the vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menus,” Dewey McMurrey, executive chef at Hospitality Services, said. “We also have had more extensive training on cross-contamination and storing products, like gluten-free ones individually in shrink wrap. In the Bistro in the SUB, we have two panini presses, one for allergy only and one for gluten products. We have completely done away with peanut products on campus. We got rid of peanuts in cookies, peanuts, peanut oil. We no longer sell jars, but we have private small containers of peanut butter.”
Before Diller came to campus, McMurrey said they were a little lacking in allergy training.
“There wasn’t that push or that knowledge,” McMurrey said. “Mindy started with around 40 students and now she talks with 140 about their diets and their options on campus. She talks to them about twice a month. She also meets with the parents to calm their fears, so they know their child is comfortable, happy and safe, which is what every parent wants.”
Diller said she is the biggest advocate for those struggling with food allergies.
“I’m always pushing for ‘Where can we add this vegan option?’” she said. “’Where can we add this vegetarian option? A gluten free choice?’ If we offer burgers, we need to make sure there’s something that someone else can have. That may be a veggie burger, that may be a lettuce wrap, a corn tortilla or a gluten free bread. How can we balance each menu for all elements? It’s challenging but it’s exciting. It’s like a cool puzzle?”