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Michele Marchetti: Penn State Food Services Employees Act as Concierges for Gluten-Free Student Diners

by on April 18, 2012 6:00 AM

Like most seniors at Penn State, Lindsey Schnitt gets teary-eyed reflecting on the people who shaped her college experience. But ask her who she’s going to miss the most, and the answer may surprise you.

“The people at food services,” she says. “They have forever changed my life, and I credit my success in college to them.”

In 2008, a few weeks before moving into the dorms, Schnitt sat in her doctor’s office hysterically crying. She had just been told she had celiac disease and could no longer eat wheat, rye, barley or oats.  She weighed 96 pounds.

The next phone call her mother made was to Penn State Food Services. She spoke to Michele Newhard, the woman who would be responsible for ensuring that her daughter ate more than hard-boiled eggs for the next four years.

Newhard, special programs training coordinator, is charged with communicating the details of the food services program to students with special needs. That program includes entrée cards at point of sale that track food allergens (a wheat icon on a cupcake, for example, denotes a red flag for gluten-free diners), special gluten-free menus and an informative website.

The program continues to evolve. This past summer, Pollock added a gluten-free dining station that allows students who don’t want to draw attention to their diets to eat without interacting with a food services employee. By next fall, the other campus dining halls will feature similar stations.

Newhard and her staff also act as concierges for students with special diets. When Schnitt said she wanted french fries, Newhard and her staff purchased a special fryer to avoid cross contamination. (When you have celiac, even a trace amount of wheat can make you sick.) When Schnitt turned 19, they found a gluten-free baker in Boalsburg who made her cake.

Newhard works with about 60 students with food allergies, about half of whom have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.

“But if we follow the national stats,” she says, “here at Penn State where we have more than 14,000 students living on campus, there are most likely 140 gluten-free diners who have been just diagnosed with celiac.”

(Penn State student Sara Castronuova is currently recruiting members to a gluten-free student organization; if you’re interested, e-mail her at sjc5393@psu.edu.)

During Schnitt’s freshman year, Food Services rolled out the special gluten-free menu that includes items like gluten-free soup du-jour and gluten-free pizza.  For the traditional Thanksgiving meal — an entrée that is so popular it actually appears monthly — the kitchen created a gluten-free gravy to dress the bird.

Diners ordering off the gluten-free menu must call an hour in advance. When the call comes in, a complex process ensues: The chef changes his or her apron and gloves, scrubs down like a surgeon, and carefully prepares a meal — all so students like Schnitt don’t end up in the hospital after eating their dinner.

Because no college student should be forced to make it through college without dessert, that menu also includes gluten-free cookies and cupcakes. In order to offer those items, the staff sanitizes the bakery for two days each year and bakes dozens of gluten-free items that are frozen and sold throughout the school year.

The dessert line was inspired by Lisa A. Lundy, a Penn State graduate and author of The Super Allergy Girl Gluten-Free, Casein-Free, Nut-Free Allergy & Celiac Cookbook. Three years ago, Lundy visited Penn State Food Services, offering ideas on how it could better serve students with diet restrictions. Lundy has also offered to counsel concerned parents.

“They’re terrified to leave their children on the steps of Old Main,” Newhard says, “because they’ve protected them for all these years. Suddenly they have to step away and allow the child to become the master of their own food destiny.”

In Schnitt’s case, she feared that even if she did speak up, a school as large as Penn State could never accommodate her wishes. Yet on her first tour of the dining commons, an employee eagerly endorsed her suggestion to offer lettuce wraps at the made-to-order deli station.

“Absolutely,” the employee said. “We’ll start sourcing large-leaf lettuce.”

It wasn’t long before Schnitt was back in the kitchen, watching the staff prepare her meals.

One particular gesture that will always stand out for Schnitt was when one of the Redifer Commons cooks — charged with feeding her and about 7,000 other students — put an end to Schnitt’s longstanding chicken and pepper order.

“Lindsey, you have to eat something else,” he implored after about 15 consecutive weeks of the same order. “What can I make you that’s different?”

It was as if her own mom had taken a job at the dining commons.

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at mitchmarchetti@gmail.com
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