Healthy, Stealthy and Superb

By Jennifer Iscol

Risley Dining Room

Risley Dining Room

In a new approach to dietary accommodations in college dining halls, the Ivy League university with the country’s top hospitality school just announced the grand reopening of one of its dining halls as entirely gluten-free, tree nut-free, peanut-free and “plant forward.” Cornell is “knocking it out of the park,” according to Betsy Craig of MenuTrinfo, which provided gluten-free certification for the Risley Dining Room, as well as allergen training university-wide. “They handle everything with ‘yes’ – or even ‘hell, yes’ – and make it delicious.”

Instead of replacing the ubiquitous college dining staples of pizza, pasta and sandwiches with gluten-free versions, Risley Dining Room chef Kevin Grant quietly removed gluten, nuts and peanuts over a two-year period and instead provides innovative, restaurant-quality dishes so satisfying that most diners have been unaware that several top allergens are off the menu and plants and whole foods are playing a bigger role.

So what exactly are they eating?

Roasted root vegetables

Roasted root vegetables

Diners at Risley are treated to flavorful renditions of smash potatoes and smashburgers, fritattas, homemade soups, a crepe station, a nacho bar, a salad bar with homemade dressings, tostadas, chilis, build-your-own stir fry, an omelet bar, and entrees composed of bánh mì (Vietnamese) and poke bowl (Hawaiian) variations. Sometimes the chef gets truly creative; a pizza-like entree called “Cauliflower Graffiti” looked like a Picasso painting – if Picasso had worked with a roasted cauliflower base, kale pesto and pomegranate seeds.

Risley Chef Kevin Grant

Chef Kevin Grant in the Gothic-inspired Risley Dining Room

Most students love the new cuisine, with remarkably few voices of dissent, and some athletic teams go out of their way to eat there. Introducing the new foods without announcing them as gluten-free seems to have neatly sidestepped any negative association with the gluten-free diet trend and allowed them to stand on their own merit.

Leading innovation in college dining

The new menu also aligns with the culinary-centric Menus of Change initiative, led by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Cornell is one of over 40 universities that belong to or participate in the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, cofounded and jointly led by Stanford University and the Culinary Institute of America. It is a novel program at the intersection of health, sustainability, culinary insight, and next-generation business strategy, designed to impact the lifelong food choices of students and move Americans toward healthier, more sustainable, plant-forward diets.

Cilantro yam salad

Cilantro yam salad

At Cornell, chef Kevin Grant said it is the relatively small size of the Risley Dining Room, and his interest in plant-forward cuisine and making as much as possible from scratch, that allowed the innovation to develop and thrive. Although all members of the Cornell community, visitors and members of the public are welcome at Risley, the dining room serves a relatively small fraction of the university population in the freshman residential area known as North Campus. In some ways, Risley seems to be serving as an incubator and certain aspects of its new approach will be impacting the rest of Cornell’s Dining Services.

Inspiration from Northern California chef

The inspiration for a number of the recipes comes from Amy Fothergill, Cornell School of Hotel Administration alumna and author of The Warm Kitchen gluten-free cookbook. Chef Grant met Ms. Fothergill at an event and forged a connection. Ms. Fothergill, who lives in Northern California where a large concentration of alumni stay connected through Cornell NorCal and Cornell Silicon Valley, will return to the university for Risley’s grand reopening dinner on February 2nd from 5-7pm. Ms Fothergill will also conduct training at the hotel school and additional dining halls.

College students with medical dietary restrictions have extra stress

Tofu curry

Tofu curry

Celiac disease experts welcomed Cornell’s efforts in accommodation. Peter H.R. Green, MD, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, explained, “Avoiding gluten-containing food requires constant vigilance for people with celiac disease, adding stress for college students during an important time of transition that is stressful in itself. The burden of a chronic disease process together with a burdensome dietary regime makes it imperative that a college dining room provide a variety of safe, healthy, gluten-free foods.”

Marilyn G. Geller, chief executive officer of the Celiac Disease Foundation stated that it can be overwhelming for young adults diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac wheat or gluten sensitivity to manage their treatment in the midst of the spontaneity of college life. “We applaud all efforts to offer these students safe, gluten-free options and, as important, places on their college campus to help facilitate good health, proper development, and academic success.”

For students with anaphylactic food allergies, the risk of a mistaken food choice or microscopic cross contamination is exponentially higher, adding to the stress of living independently for the first time while relying on a dining hall for meals. Food Allergy & Research Education (FARE) provides extensive resources for both students and universities, free food allergy training for dining and residential staff at schools implementing the FARE College Food Allergy Program, and assistance for the creation of student support groups on campus.

More students need accommodation to survive and thrive

Grilled vegetables

Grilled vegetables

An estimated nine million adults in the United States have food allergies and three million more have celiac disease. With both conditions increasing in the population, colleges are seeking ways to safely accommodate students with medical dietary restrictions, as well as those choosing to restrict their diet for other reasons. According to a survey by the New England Celiac Organization, “College students with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity face overwhelming complications in their social and academic lives.”

The Department of Justice indicated in a 2012 settlement with Lesley University that food allergies and celiac disease “may constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” signaling that colleges may be required to ensure that students with celiac disease and food allergies can fully and equally enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services.

Michele Lefebvre, RD, CDN, director of nutrition management for Cornell Dining, estimates about 500 members of the current Cornell community adhere to a gluten-free diet. Cornell Dining also accommodates a wide variety of medical and religious dietary restrictions, as well as lifestyle choices, at campus venues (10 dining halls and 22 cafes, food courts and coffee houses).

Scott Riccio, senior vice president of education and advocacy at FARE, welcomes efforts at accommodation while reminding schools to address the majority of allergens. “Across the country, more colleges and universities are recognizing the need to provide more allergy-friendly options to students managing food allergies – and that’s a very positive step in the right direction. It’s important to note, however, that eight allergens account for the majority of food allergy reactions in the United States. Our recommendation to campus dining services is that they implement food allergy management protocols that will enable them to accommodate students with food allergies beyond peanuts and tree nuts.”

Eggplant white bean stew

Eggplant white bean stew

At all dining locations, Cornell labels foods containing the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean), in addition to pork and alcohol. Labels identify vegan and vegetarian options. Students have a kosher station in a freshman dining hall and an entire kosher dining hall for upperclassmen. Special accommodations are created individually for students with unusually challenging medical dietary restrictions.

A model for the future

Betsy Craig of MenuTrinfo, whose company has provided gluten-free certification and varying levels of allergen training to a number of colleges and restaurants, worked with Cornell to research and source ingredients and track safety procedures from ‘loading dock to table top.’ Ms. Craig is enthusiastic about the launch of Risley Dining Room’s unusual new menu and healthy approach as a model for other institutions. “Cornell is trendsetting – the leader in hospitality for decades is now the leader in taking care of its students.”

Additional Resources

Allertrain/ MenuTrinfo
 Map of schools where staff completed MenuTrinfo’s AllerTrain™ courses (contact individual schools for level of training)
Celiac Disease Foundation Medical information about celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, plus advocacy and research
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE)  Resources for students and schools and list of schools in FARE college program
Gluten-Free Travel Site Reviews of individual schools
GREAT training/ Beyond Celiac List of GREAT-trained schools and college resources
Kent State University  Gluten-free dining hall
Smith College Gluten-free kitchen
University of Connecticut  Gluten-free stations, menus and dedicated gluten-free bakery