College Dining Alert: Shortages Affecting Supply of Allergy-Safe Foods

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: September 22, 2021
Photo: Getty

Ruby Schweitzer’s plan to safely eat at her college dining hall came to an abrupt halt a couple weeks after she started her freshman year at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). Ruby, who is allergic to egg, saw an Instagram post from campus dining services, alerting students to the possibility that food could be at risk of cross-contact with top allergens.

The announcement also says: “Effective immediately due to COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions requiring ingredient substitutions, allergen and ingredient information on menu boards, recipe cards, and website may not be current.”

She hasn’t eaten in a dining hall since. “It’s stressful for her,” says Ruby’s mom April Schweitzer. The news exacerbated anxiety about eating at college with food allergies. Schweitzer of Cary, North Carolina, says that now her daughter is concerned about ending up in the emergency room with anaphylaxis, especially when hospitals are so full.

Aramark Notice to Students

Allergic Living has learned that UNCW is just one of hundreds of colleges affected, as campus dining service providers grapple with providing allergy-friendly food during a time of food supply disruptions.

Aramark, the food services company that provides catering for at least 100 colleges, including UNCW, wrote the announcement for students that Ruby saw. The notice also appears on the dining websites of schools served by Aramark throughout the country – from California to Ohio to Florida.

Allergic Living asked Aramark about the announcement and how students with food allergies and celiac disease can be assured of safe meals. “Because of the pandemic’s national impact on supply chain, we encourage our community members with food allergies to contact our food service managers and registered dietitians on site who are prepared to help them navigate their options during this time,” Heather Dotchel, of Aramark’s corporate communications, replied in an emailed statement.

“Food safety always has and will continue to be our top priority and we are committed to providing students with delicious, nutritious meals that meet their dietary requirements,” she wrote.

UNCW emailed all students on its dining plans about the issue. April Schweitzer says that both the food services manager and nutritionist at UNCW tried to find creative solutions to ensure that Ruby could have safe food options. While Schweitzer appreciates their willingness to help, Ruby’s allergist wrote a letter requesting exemption from the dining plan. 

Now, Ruby only eats meals that she prepares in the kitchen in her dorm. “It’s a relief she has a kitchen on her dorm floor, and she has a car to get groceries. She feels a lot more confident managing her own food,” Ruby’s mom says. “I don’t know how we would have managed without the access to a kitchen.”

Supply Issues Widespread

Supply chain issues are evident on campuses throughout the country, says Betsy Craig, president and CEO of MenuTrinfo, a longtime leader in food allergy and gluten-free training. Challenges during the pandemic include supply volume and ingredient identification, as well as staff shortages at food manufacturing companies.

“In 10-plus years of helping those serving diners with food allergies, we have never seen anything even close to this before. COVID has wreaked havoc with every level of higher education food service,” says Craig, whose company offers colleges training, ingredient auditing and a certification program for free-from and gluten-free dining. 

Sodexo, the food services company that serves millions of students across hundreds of colleges throughout North America, is another big provider facing challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic endures. 

“We are experiencing shortages in our supply chain. We know this is a temporary situation, and are working closely with local, regional and national food suppliers to anticipate supply shortages early and find alternative food sources,” said a Sodexo spokesperson.

The company says its dining and supply teams are currently working “vigorously to procure products with strong supply sources.” Sodexo notes that it is adjusting menus as it works to ensure that available products serve the needs of its campuses.

In food manufacturing generally, a range of factors – from labor shortages to elevated consumer demand and big increases in transportation costs – are causing widespread disruptions.  

Supply challenges, in turn, affect the availability of allergy-friendly products. An example is when a factory closes and the food manufacturer combines manufacturing facilities. Now a brand that was previously produced in a plant free of top allergens may be produced in a facility with shared lines, and also making products with allergens. 

“When this happens, we can no longer use the items produced in the factory as there is likely cross-contamination that will lead to a food allergy reaction,” says the Sodexo spokesperson. The strain on the supply chain is leading to more substitutions with products that often contain different ingredients than those they are replacing. 

Importance of Transparency

Craig says campuses that MenuTrinfo works with on allergy safety currently face food substitutions in 30 to 42 percent of their deliveries. She bases this on a review of client invoices. Her company is helping many college dining providers, as well as campuses that do not use a contract provider, to navigate the pandemic hurdles. Yet, she says, the level of substitutions that MenuTrinfo is being asked to review for allergen safety is unprecedented. 

When deliveries include substitutions, dining services working with MenuTrinfo have two choices: serve what they have been delivered and let the students know that it may be different from the regular brand, or go without, Craig says. She recently worked with a dietitian who received a shipment of buns that contain dairy, instead of the usual dairy-free buns. So rather than offering no buns, these buns are now labeled as having dairy. 

“Suppliers that we talk to are truly trying to do whatever they can to make their food safe and transparent for all. Transparency and truth are the very best option,” Craig says. 

In light of the supply chain issues, MenuTrinfo has hired more staff to check information on ingredients, look up allergens, and ask manufacturers to share information. The company uses an internal database called “The Rocket” that identifies food products that MenuTrinfo “certifies free from” any or all of the top 8 allergens plus gluten. The brands included in this database must test regularly and agree to set rigorous standards, Craig says.

For schools that offer Sodexo’s Simple Servings dining, which is top 8-free and gluten-free, designated staff are reviewing any substituted products, and consulting with the registered dietitian to decide whether a product is safe to use. “Every precaution needs to be implemented to ensure students with food allergies can eat safely in an inclusionary environment to the highest extent possible,” the Sodexo spokesperson says. 

Staying Safe at College

April and Ruby Schweitzer

The situation is fluid with no definitive time frame for when the need for so many ingredient substitutions will subside. The disruptive nature of the supply chain issues affecting food services at colleges throughout the United States certainly points to a need for added vigilance and communication.

Following are some steps to take:

• It is essential that students with food allergies or gluten intolerance inform campus food services about their food restrictions and work with the college dietitian.
• Parents will want to warn students with food allergies that while some campus providers are working to communicate any changes and cross-contact risks, not all dining websites and signage are up to date.
• Definitely find out the situation at an individual college in relation to the reliability of food allergy signage, website menus and on-site labeling.
• With the dietitian, students will want to discuss how to find safe food options in dining halls, or get assistance with grocery and cooking alternatives during this period.
• Perhaps especially in this challenging time, parents should again remind about always carrying epinephrine auto-injectors. 

Related Reading:
Colleges That Go the Distance for Students with Food Allergies
From Dorms to Dining Halls, the Good and the Bad of the College Experience with Food Allergies

Food Ordering App That Meets Allergic Students’ Needs