UNH Dining provides options to students with celiac disease

On March 1, 2011

Cookies, muffins, cake, pancakes, pasta, bread, bagels. What do all of these foods we eat have in common? They all contain a protein found in wheat - gluten - that can actually kill some of the students here on the UNH campus.

To prevent such an incident, dining services at the University of New Hampshire has gone to great lengths to make sure these students, who have the illness called celiac disease, are more comfortable in the three dining halls around campus.

According to celiac.org, celiac disease is a disease of the small intestine that is triggered by the consumption of gluten. When people with celiac disease ingest gluten, the lining of their small intestinal tract becomes inflamed and causes an inability to absorb certain vital nutrients, making the person sick.

Rochelle L'Italien, a nutritionist at UNH, said she knows of at least 35 students on campus that have intolerances to gluten, mostly from celiac disease. In fact, one in 133 people are affected with celiac disease in the United States, according to L'Italien.

UNH Dining is trying its best to make these students' dining experience just as enjoyable as someone without celiac disease.

While there are a lot of foods in the dining halls that are gluten-free, there is also a lot of cross-contact between the foods with gluten and the foods without.

 "Peanut butter is gluten-free, but if someone were to take the knife and put it on regular bread then put the knife back in, that means it's cross-contaminated with wheat, so someone with [celiac disease] couldn't just take that peanut butter from the service line," L'Italien said.

In order to prevent the cross-contamination of gluten, there are "gluten-free" stations at each dining hall for the convenience of the students with restricted diets. Each station is equipped with a gluten-free refrigerator, toaster, microwave, and Panini grill. There are also separate pans at the omelet and stir fry stations used for gluten-free foods.

UNH Dining also provides various kinds of gluten-free foods to students with celiac disease.

Kate Dolan, a chef at Holloway Commons, as well as the purchaser of UNH's gluten-free products, said UNH Dining provides students with gluten-free bread, bagels, English muffins, cereals, oatmeal, waffles, and pancakes, in addition to individual tubs of butter, cream cheese and peanut butter to prevent cross-contamination.

Another service UNH Dining provides to students with gluten allergies is its "order-ahead" program, from which students can order a meal online and have it ready for them when they go to one of the dining halls.

According to students, ordering online is helpful, minus a few small hiccups. Cecily Desautel, a junior at UNH, was diagnosed in July with celiac disease, and has been taking full advantage of the gluten-free services UNH has to offer.

"I think it's an awesome idea, and the options are great, and so is the service," she said.

Desautel did mention, though, that since dining halls need to know in advance what meal the students want, it is hard to make last minute decisions about what and where to eat.

"Most students don't plan when and where they are having dinner at nine in the morning, and therefore you can't really take advantage of it," Desautel said.

Though the order-ahead program has some room for improvement, the diversity of gluten-free foods has increased since UNH first created the gluten-free program in 2006.

According to Dolan, when the program began, UNH was one of the only universities to have a service like this. As the program grows over time, constant additions are being made to keep up with the increasing needs of students.

Despite the growing number of students that require gluten-free meals at the university, L'Italien said that there was a reason UNH didn't start the program until 2006.

"We didn't have a whole lot of students asking for it - maybe two. And now we just have a lot more students that are being diagnosed with celiac disease," she said. "I've been working here 19 years, and I've never had anybody request help with that before around that time."

Dolan agreed, and said celiac disease is one of the largest growing diet intolerances. Since last year, the percentage of gluten-free products ordered at UNH has increased dramatically in order to sustain the increasing amount of intolerances to gluten. For example, Amy's Macaroni and Cheese, a common favorite, has had an increase in purchases of 52.6 percent, according to Dolan's statistics. Purchases of gluten-free snicker doodle cookies have increased 48.9 percent, and purchases of brown rice pasta have increased 39.5 percent.

As UNH's gluten-free services continue to expand, students with gluten intolerances are hoping that their food selection will continue to grow at UNH, along with the range of where gluten-free food is sold.

"I would love more options for the stores around campus because I, personally, am very busy and don't have a lot of time to eat, and often miss out on meals because I can't just run to Union Court and get a sandwich or Panache," Desautel said.

Though there are still some issues to work out, Dolan said dining services tries to accommodate every UNH student's various needs.

"We really try to provide something substantial for everybody, regardless of what the issue might be," Dolan stated.

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