Housing dishes up allergen-free meals

Housing dishes up allergen-free meals
Harper Dining Center to expand option in January

Kim Scerini, a team leader in the Harper Dining Center, serves a pork chop and potato wedges to Gabe Walmsley at the allergen-free food station in Harper Dining Center. The allergen-free option is available at lunch on Wednesdays this semester, but will expand to all meals in January.
Troy Fedderson | University Communication
Kim Scerini, a team leader in the Harper Dining Center, serves a pork chop and potato wedges to Gabe Walmsley at the allergen-free food station in Harper Dining Center. The allergen-free option is available at lunch on Wednesdays this semester, but will expand to all meals in January.

A pilot program is helping the University of Nebraska–Lincoln better meet the changing dietary needs of its student body.

Buoyed by requests from parents and students, University Housing has started offering an allergen-free meal option in its Harper-Schramm-Smith Dining Center. While limited to lunch on Wednesdays for the fall semester, the option will be available every meal, seven days a week when the spring semester launches in January.

“We’ve noticed an increase in students who report multiple allergens to us,” said Pat McManus, manager of the Harper Dining Center. “So, to better and more efficiently meet those requests, we decided to offer this allergen-free option.”

The meals feature whole foods — primarily simply prepared meats, vegetables and salads — alongside more advanced offerings, from lentil-based pastas to chocolate cupcakes. At least seven items are offered at each meal.

Dawn de Groot, production manager at Harper Dining Service, continues to test and build the number of allergen-free recipes available. When the full program launches in January, they hope to have a five-week menu cycle in place with more than 20 different recipes offered each day.

Options being explored include pizza with a cauliflower crust, stir fry and maybe even a sub sandwich station.

“We’re working hard to modify existing recipes and develop new ideas,” de Groot said. “We’re excited to see where this goes, especially as the response has been very positive.”

The meals are being promoted within campus dining halls and are averaging more than 125 students each Wednesday.

To avoid cross-contamination, food offered at Harper Dining Center's allergen-free meal station is dished up by University Housing employees.

During lunch on Sept. 5, Gabe Walmsley, a freshman accounting major, opted for a pork chop and seasoned potatoes.

“I don’t have food allergies, but I just like the idea of these simpler foods,” Walmsley said. “Quite often, it just looks better than other fare.”

The chocolate cupcakes have proven to be particularly popular.

“They go pretty quickly,” said Kim Scerini, a team leader in the Harper Dining Center. “One student with food allergies told me it was the best chocolate cupcake she’s had in 14 years. Hearing that really makes us feel good.”

The meals are free of the big eight food allergens — dairy, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat. They are also prepared gluten-free, but due to gluten use in other prep areas of the kitchen, the allergen-free menu cannot claim to be 100 percent free of the grain-based proteins.

To reduce cross contamination of big eight allergens, all food prep is completed in a separate room within the Harper kitchen. Separate ovens, utensils and tools are reserved for the space; staff are not allowed to work in both the regular and allergen-free areas; and food items that include allergens are not allowed in the dedicated prep space.

“We are planning a remodel during winter break,” McManus said. “The new set up will make the space more efficient as we start offering allergen-free options at every meal.”

University Housing will continue to work with individual student’s dietary needs. Specific plans can be established by contacting Pam Edwards, assistant director of university dining services, at 402-472-9045 or pedwards1@unl.edu.

“We are here for the students,” de Groot said. “Any time we can expand our services to better meet the needs of students is awesome. And, it’s a good thing for the university in terms of student recruitment.”