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Gluten-free meals extensive at UConn

By Liz Crowley
On January 25, 2011

Using the same spoon for the chicken noodle soup and the shrimp jambalaya might seem trivial to some students, but it could keep others bedridden for days.

People suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance cannot ingest any wheat or gluten without becoming violently sick. This may seem difficult to avoid, but UConn students have access to a food program where 20 percent of the recipes are gluten-free.

C. Dennis Pierce, UConn's director of Dining Services, and Robert Landolphi, culinary operations manager, have put together an extensive gluten-free program. Every dining facility on campus has at least one gluten free entree at every meal, and every dish that has gluten or wheat in it is labeled as such. The dining services website also has an allergen filter, so students may see what dishes the facilities are serving that day that fit their dietary needs.

"I am fortunate to have a staff that literally feels strongly about the students that they feed," Pierce said. "And just because a student has a certain dietary requirement, you don't not meet their needs."

Both Chuck and Augie's and the Union Street Market have gluten-free menu options. Coffee and sandwich shops on campus also have gluten-free selections. Dining halls serve gluten-free meals such as butternut bisque, quesadilla bar, gluten-free pasta and shrimp jambalaya, as well as many cereals and breads.

"The food's great," Landolphi said. "You are seeing a lot of the mainstream companies jump on board."

John Tyczkowski, a 6th-semester linguistics/philosophy and political science double major who writes for The Daily Campus, was diagnosed with celiac disease 14 months ago. He said it was a long and painful ordeal before he was officially diagnosed, but that it afterward changed his life.

"I couldn't focus on anything or do anything," Tyczkowski said.

He went through the same process all students with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance go through when they come to UConn. He had a meeting with the staff and learned about the school's program.

Pierce, Tyczkowski and Landolphi all mentioned that if a student doesn't like the gluten-free option of the day, they have access to a freezer in the dining hall filled with other options. Landolphi said there are breads, bagels, pastas and desserts in the freezer. He also said there is a separate toaster for students to use, kept in the manager's office, to reduce chances of cross-contamination. Pierce said the staff buys wheat-free crusts so students can have pizza.

"They have a really good support system here," said Tyczkowski. "They have clear signage in the dining hall, which is great."

Tyczkowski said his biggest concern in the dining halls is cross-contamination. It is easy for students without dietary issues to forget that slightly grazing the tuna scooper on their bread could make students with celiac disease sick, he said.

"It's a big danger and it's always a risk when you eat in a dining hall, but you have to cross your fingers and go for it," said Tyczkowski, who was sick for four days after using a contaminated tuna scooper.

Dining services has an extensive protocol for cooking gluten-free food. The staff is retrained twice a year in addition to Landolphi's constant rotations through all of the facilities to ensure the proper methods are being followed. Landolphi also contacts the manufacturer of the products used to personally ensure there is no wheat or gluten in them, even if they are already labeled as such.

Landolphi added that the staff rarely uses flour in the kitchen, but that when they do, it is in a separate area that is thoroughly cleaned afterwards. Also, he said none of the gluten-free baking is done in the on-campus bakery because the risk of cross-contamination would be too high. Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are not allergies. However, the staff treats them as such to be careful.

"Our chefs have just done a fantastic job…they bought in, they realize that this is something that is serious," Landolphi said.

The staff started the program after meeting with two celiac students in 2001. Landolphi remembered turning to Pierce after the students left and saying, "This is going to be an epidemic."

Currently, they are supporting more than 75 students and community members who cannot eat wheat or gluten. When a student expresses a dietary need, dining services will set up a meeting with the student, his or her family, the assistant director of residential dining, the dining unit manager, the production chef, a registered dietitian and the area manager of culinary development.

"Typically when an individual is diagnosed, especially around the beginning of school, their mom and dad are calling us and they are freaking out," Pierce said. "‘My son or daughter has just been diagnosed with celiac. What can you do? We're going to have to bring food up for them.' And we go ‘No, no, no, no, no. We got it down to a science here.' We explain the process, and we tell them what we do."

UConn has the country's third-largest residential student food program, serving approximately 180,000 meals a week. Pierce said Boston Children's Hospital recognized UConn as the best university or college for food services that meet the needs of a student with wheat intolerance or allergies. The hospital spent three days on campus last fall filming a 15-minute documentary about dealing with gluten-free dining restrictions on a college campus.

"The purpose of it is to be able to give it [the documentary] to their patients that have been diagnosed with celiac or wheat intolerance such that they can advocate for themselves when they go to college," Pierce said.

"I think they [Boston Children's Hospital] just heard," Landolphi said. "We've had a real positive experience…it's grown, just word of mouth. People understand that we are here for our students."

Landolphi began cooking gluten-free meals when his wife was diagnosed with celiac disease. He is the author of the website "The Gluten-Free Chef," has published a cookbook called "Gluten-Free Everyday Cookbook" and plans to release a second book this summer.

Celiac disease is a digestive, autoimmune, genetic disorder that causes an immune inflammatory response in the small intestine when gluten or wheat is ingested. The body flattens the villi cells lining the small intestines, making it impossible to absorb any nutrients from food. One in 100 Americans has celiac disease – approximately two to three million people.

Medical advancements have increased proper diagnosis and understanding of celiac disease. This has increased awareness of gluten-free dietary needs in restaurants and stores throughout the country.

Gluten can be found in baked goods, such as breads and cookies, sausages, pre-seasoned meats, deli meats, soups, grains, pastas, certain alcohols and anything with flour. UConn now buys gluten-free deli meats, soy sauces, salad dressings, tortillas and wraps.

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