The Advance-Titan

Campus looks to work with students with food allergies

Morgan Van Lanen

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While other freshmen were busy worrying about making friends and getting to their classes on time, Claire Clough was concerned about what she was going to be eating every day.

Clough, now a UW Oshkosh sophomore, is lactose intolerant and has been allergic to fish for most of her life. A week into her freshman year, she was diagnosed with Celiac Disease.

Clough said she now lives off-campus so she can prepare meals better suited to her dietary needs. However, for the year she did live on campus, it was not easy finding foods she would feel confident eating.

“I struggled with food options the most, and getting enough to eat and enough protein,” Clough said. “When I lived on campus, I would eat the same thing everyday. I also struggled with getting enough to eat because I would eat everything I could, but it was all very light food and not very filling.”

A study done by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 found that food allergies among children have increased by approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

Marty Strand, the assistant director for dining operations, said this statistic is consistent with what he has experienced.

“Without a doubt, more people with food allergies are being identified,” Strand said. “I think that students had them before, but just didn’t know it. If they have identified that they are especially sensitive, then we can work with them.”

In recent years, gluten, nut, soy and dairy have become the four most common food allergies for students with a meal plan at UWO, Strand said.

Strand said making sure these students are taken care of is something very important to the dining staff.

“We once had a person who was just so allergic to nuts that they couldn’t be in a building with peanut butter in it,” Strand said. “They were afraid of that. We can’t have people being afraid to eat some place.”

Although UWO Dining assists students with common food allergies like gluten, cooks occasionally run into students with much more eccentric sensitivities, Strand said. UWO chef Fritz Niebergall said he once helped a student who was allergic to garlic, an ingredient that can be found in many foods served on campus, in the form of dried, powder, liquid or fresh.

Sometimes students have allergies that do not always relate to food itself, but can still interfere with mealtime, Strand said.

“We have had things as strange as light allergies,” Strand said. “We had to provide a place for somebody to eat that didn’t have lights in it because they were just overly sensitive to light. She was able to eat here every single day because we had a room that had windows and that was pretty much the only light the room had. We reserved the whole room for her for the whole year.”

There is a process Strand said he encourages students with food allergies take part in, in order to improve their dining experiences on campus.

It starts with a student letting someone know during a tour or preview day that he/she has an allergy that needs special attention, Strand said. Once a student is enrolled at Oshkosh, Niebergall will take it into his own hands and help students from there, as every allergy type is treated differently.

“I would like students to reach out to me,” Niebergall said. “I have systems in place for diners with allergies. However, if you do not talk to someone, you might not know about how to avoid contact with the item that you’re allergic to. An example is, for gluten-free students, we have a section separate from the regular population for gluten-free items. Most of the other students do not know that gluten-free items can become gluten by cross contact.”

Clough said cross-contamination is something students with dietary restrictions like her take very seriously.

“That is a worry that I have,” Clough said. “It has, unfortunately, happened before and it will happen again. That is one of the problems people with food allergies deal with.”

Niebergall said he will also take time to show students how to properly read the menus in Blackhawk Commons so they know what ingredients every food item contains. For example, if a dish contains soy, it will be marked so people with the allergy steer clear.

“I try to teach the students to look at the nutritional info at each station, which will have the info they need on over 90 percent of the foods here,” Niebergall said. “I give my email and work cell phone out to these folks and encourage them to call or ask me question.”

If students with allergies who dine in Blackhawk or Reeve Memorial Union have not yet notified Niebergall, Strand said he encourages them to stop into his office in the basement of Blackhawk so they can get help from the chef.

“Safety is No. 1 on my list,” Niebergall said. “Not only for folks with allergies, but for the rest of the general population too.”

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Independent Student Newspaper of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Campus looks to work with students with food allergies