SIU Dining Halls Go The Extra Step For Students With Special Dietary Needs

Sep 8, 2016

It’s almost fall and school is back in session.

Southern Illinois University – Carbondale has a lot of new faces that choose to come here because of specific programs to get their degree.

However some students chose SIU because of the food.

The fall semester is full gear.

Thousands of students moved in to the resident halls in late August.

That means there are over 3000 hungry students visiting the dining halls multiple times a day.

And according to associate director of housing culinary and nutrition services Peggy Connors, they don’t want the same stuff everyday, well almost everyday.

“It’s a challenge, Chef Bill is in charge of the menus and he does a great job finding different products that are current that are new that students will like that are trendy, so we try to stay on top of what college students are eating and I must say the top ingredient that student still love are chicken strips.

On top of that, there are some students that have some specific dietary needs.

"The last thing we want students doing is coming in not having anything to eat"- Peggy Connors SIU Dining Hall

Almost 2 dozen have nut allergies, 7 students require gluten free food, almost a dozen that are lactose intolerant, and the list goes on.

That’s a small population compared to the rest of the resident students, but Conners does not want them to feel left out.

“The last thing we want students doing is coming in not having anything to eat having to keep food in their room, not being happy, that causes more stress in an already stressful environment for some students especially their freshman year.”

While Peggy was showing me around during move in week, Freshman Rachel Barish and her father Gene stopped by for a tour with Conners.

Rachel was diagnosed with celiac disease about 3 years ago.

It’s not been an easy few years for Rachel, because when she ingests gluten…

“It makes me very sick, vomiting, migraines and then for a couple of days after that I’ll feel weak from all the vomiting and stuff, in high school it was really hard because at dinner I would eat something I was allergic to and then I would get sick at 3 o’clock in the morning and I wouldn’t be able to go to school the next day”

As a parent dropping off their child for their freshman year of college, Gene thought he would have a lot to worry about, but Connors quickly put his mind at ease.

“It was very helpful went around with her and her staff and brought us to the cafeteria showed us all the different options for the accommodations that we need to have so that Rachel can have not be so much inconvenienced with having to do a special diet and showing that there are options available.”

SIU wasn’t the only University the Barishes were considering, because they have more to consider than the classes.

“I think the food here was a little easier to access than U of I, that was the other one I was deciding between.”

To give these hungry students access to food to meet their special dietary needs, the staff has to eliminate any chance of cross contamination.

To achieve this, they have a separate pantry for these students and they all have their own space cabinets and everything has their name on it.

“The majority of it is gluten free we have the individual toaster, microwave, dishes, silverware, toaster oven, refrigerator and freezers that are specific for the gluten free products.”

But they don’t stop there.

“All of the dishes are left there at the end of the meal and we get the dishes and we hold them until the following morning when the dish water is clean from the dish machine and send them through then so they don’t possibly get contaminated from the water or any of the dishes and then there put back into the kitchen.”

That’s a lot to keep up with 7 days a week for two semesters.

Luckily Connors can rely on her three student workers to help out while learning about special dietary needs.

Graduate Student Jenna Lowe has been working with Connors for a little while now, but finds the work rewarding.

“There is quite a bit of organization we always have to make sure we’re focusing on the right individual because people have different milk different cereals so that can be a bit overwhelming at times but its actually really neat to know that we’re tailoring our work for each individual in the dining hall.”

And because some students have severe reactions to gluten or other ingredients the pressure is on for Senior Kylie Sullivan to keep things organized.

“It is very stressful because its not only on our end but we also have to communicate with a lot of people in the dinning halls to make sure that the student is getting exactly what they ask for and not anything else because with an allergy it could be life threatening I know we have a student on campus this semester who has severe anaphylaxis with milk and eggs and if she has any of that she could stop breathing and die.”

Knowing food could cause your child extreme sickness and difficulties could make it hard to set them off on their own in a cafeteria full of potentially dangerous options, but Gene felt at ease.

“I feel like when we leave after Rachel’s all packed and settled or a unpacked and settled and we leave I think that we feel very comfortable leaving her in the cafeteria and the school and Peggy’s hands here.”

The Barishes weren’t the only ones to have this kind of experience with Peggy and the dining hall options.

“I meet with parents and a student last night and the mom told me again, they had gone to four different universities, some state schools and out of state schools that do nothing like we do, they don’t have a separate area, the individual toasters, etc. I think I’m really proud of that statement.”