For the staff of the Michigan State University dining halls, serving roughly 27,000 students each semester has never been a picnic. But these days, the job involves an even bigger challenge: One in six of those students has an allergy or other dietary restriction. Just five years ago, it was one in eight.
In the lead-up to this fall term, Kelsey Patterson, the school’s registered dietitian, responded to messages from 300 parents and students about dietary strictures that included life-threatening allergies and a host of special diets based on health, environmental, religious or personal concerns.
To deal with allergies alone, two dining hall chefs, Jordan Durkin and Brittany Lesage, enlisted an outside company to approve every new ingredient used at Thrive at Owen, a four-year-old dining hall that’s free of the nine major food allergens listed by the Food and Drug Administration. They taught the staff how to keep allergens from getting into the Thrive kitchen, and devised a rotating menu that excludes basic ingredients like milk, eggs and wheat.
Next year, they’ll repeat the process all over again, for new students with a different crop of dietary restrictions to manage. “You think you have one dialed in, and then something new comes up,” Mr. Durkin said.
Once upon a time, running a college meal service was fairly straightforward: Put out one entree, one dessert, maybe a salad bar. Today, dining halls must cater to a student body with increasingly varied and complicated needs and preferences.
Some 6.2 percent of adults in the United States have a food allergy, according to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that number reflects only medically diagnosed allergies, and doesn’t include all the restricted diets that many younger people are adopting.
Robert Landolphi, the assistant director of culinary operations at the University of Connecticut, said that two decades ago, “you had your handful of peanut and tree-nut allergies, and back then we had maybe two people with gluten-free diets.” Today, he said, more than 10 percent of those on meal plans have some sort of dietary restriction.
Unlike restaurants or high school cafeterias, college and university dining halls have to feed thousands of people, providing breakfast, lunch, dinner and often late-night snacks. Students may also have no choice but to eat there, as meal plans are often required for those who live on campus.
“We are your home, we are where you live, where you eat, where you spend time with your friends,” said Emily Svennevik, a registered dietitian at Vanderbilt University.
Vanderbilt has a cafe that bars the F.D.A.’s top nine allergens, another dining hall that is free of peanuts, tree nuts and gluten, and an app that lets students with allergies order customized meals.
Other schools have made similar moves. But some simply list the ingredients in their dishes, or offer bins of alternatives like gluten-free bread and dairy-free yogurt. Generally, students with lifestyle-based preferences are directed toward existing options, while those with severe allergies submit medical documentation in order to receive special accommodations.
Just how far a meal plan should go to accommodate student diets is a matter of perennial debate. Robert Nelson, the chief executive of the National Association for College and University Food Services, said some dining hall managers argue that it’s better for students with allergies to learn how to navigate a conventional buffet, as they’ll have to do once they graduate.
But many students said it’s not always easy to find adequate choices. That can rankle when meal plans are obligatory, and the average annual cost is $5,023 per student, according to a 2022 report from the Department of Education.
During the first semester of her sophomore year, Maria Bambrick-Santoyo, a senior at Yale University who has celiac disease, said there were only six days when she didn’t get sick from what she ate in the dining hall.
Students would often mix up serving spoons, increasing the risk of cross-contamination, she said. In such a busy kitchen, it was hard to guarantee that bits of flour didn’t fall into an otherwise gluten-free dish. After several months of emailing college officials, she was allowed to opt out of the meal plan.
“When you are preparing food at such a large scale,” she said, “it would be unreasonable for me to expect them to do more that what they were already doing, which was wiping down counters, cleaning new pots and pans, separating the ingredients.”
Erica Kem, who graduated from the University of Virginia in May, has a long list of allergies: tree nuts, seafood, peanuts, coconut, dairy, eggs, wheat, barley, sesame, beef, mustard and tomatoes. The last four weren’t addressed in the allergen-free dining hall.
The staff offered to make her custom meals, but required several hours’ notice, and with her busy schedule, she couldn’t always predict when she would eat. She couldn’t decide on the spur of the moment to socialize with her friends at the dining hall without examining the menu first.
“I would have to look ahead and be like: ‘Would I actually like it? Is it worth potential contamination?’” she said.
If her parents, who live a two-hour drive away, hadn’t regularly brought her home-cooked food, she would have struggled to feed herself, she said.
Chloe Costell, a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, who is vegan, said she often eats dessert for dinner because the cafeteria has run out of vegan entrees. “College was when I started developing anemia,” she said.
Several dining hall managers and dietitians said they do their best to meet each student’s needs, but acknowledged that it can be difficult and cost-prohibitive to accommodate all of them — especially the less-common requests.
At the University of Connecticut, Mr. Landolphi recalled a student who told him that for animal protein, he ate only fish heads, organ meats and bone broth — and that the dining hall should serve a similar menu, for the sake of student health.
After Mr. Landolphi explained that wouldn’t be possible, the student “agreed to eat fish that we brought in from Boston and beef from Maine. He adapted to our offerings.”
At the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo, Calif., a few students eat only grass-fed meat and organic produce, and expect the dining hall to routinely provide them, said Kaitlin Gibbons, the school’s registered dietitian.
“The reality is we are not a restaurant,” she said. “We are not serving individuals. We are not short-order cooks. So it is just natural that some students, especially if you are on a restricted diet and don’t have enough options, get upset about it.”
Still, plenty of students said they felt content with what was available.
Keira DiGaetano, a recent graduate of Vassar College who is vegan and allergic to sesame and tree nuts, loved the dining hall’s Greek bowl, which came with tempeh and vegan tzatziki.
Katherine Ng, a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, said she appreciated that the online menu listed the possible allergens in each dish, so she could plan ahead. “As a nut-allergy person, it was the most friendly to me,” she said.
What is often more difficult for students with allergies are the pressures of the college environment, like being on your own in a new place and wanting to fit in, said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who studies allergies in college students.
“It is also that time for college students when you think you are invincible,” so students are more likely to take dietary risks because they want to eat with their peers, she said. “You want to make friends, you don’t want to be different.”
To address some of these issues, last year two Northwestern students, Kethan Bajaj and Julia Auerbach, founded College Advocates for Food Allergy Awareness and Education, an organization that supports people with allergies.
The group has run on-campus trainings in how to use an EpiPen, and hosted discussions among students with allergies. This year, it hopes to work more closely with the Northwestern dining halls — which already have allergen-free stations called Pure Eats — on issues like having more safe snacks available on campus and placing toasters for gluten-free breads far away from the other appliances.
But the group’s ambitions are even larger. Ms. Auerbach and Mr. Bajaj are already in contact with students at several other campuses to set up new chapters. Their ultimate aim is allergen-free stations at every school.