Generation GF Teen Summit
Gluten-free dining: A smart choice for college communities.
By Chris Rich
Living with celiac disease and other forms of gluten sensitivity can be difficult for teens and college students. A simple activity like ordering a pizza with friends is fraught with peril and can even create conflict with peers.
According to current research, approximately 1 in every 100 people have been diagnosed with celiac disease and up to 6 percent have been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The actual numbers may be much higher. Because celiac disease requires an endoscopy for diagnosis, many people exhibiting symptoms aren’t factored into these statistics. Anecdotal evidence also suggests an increase in diagnosis, with some dieticians reporting one to three new cases every day due to increased awareness about gluten sensitivity. In a large hospital, that adds up to about 10 to 15 new cases per week.
To address the growing demand for more understanding on how living gluten-free affects teenagers, the Gluten Intolerance Group, a non-profit organization, recently hosted the first annual Generation GF Teen Summit in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. As a key organizer for the event, one of the issues that stood out was the strong interest in the need for gluten-free options at colleges. Students and their parents discussed at length the challenges of planning for college for their gluten-free teens.
Finding a school that accommodates students with gluten sensitvity is critical because even a single crumb can cause major health problems. What many people don’t realize is that the stigma surrounding following a restricted diet can also create social and emotional challenges. During one session of the summit, I asked the audience how many had been bullied because of their dietary needs. Nearly every young person in the room raised their hand. Many of these kids said they also felt like a burden to restaurants and other facilities because of their specialized diet.
Catering to Diverse Dietary Needs
Colleges have a lot to gain in recognizing these concerns and providing gluten-free options. Students living gluten-free and their parents look for schools that accommodate their dietary needs during campus tours and the application process. In fact, many families ask to be served lunch at their prospective colleges or universites to experience first-hand how gluten-free dining is handled. Given the choice, potential students are going to choose a school that offers gluten-free choices over those that do not.
Schools that don’t provide gluten-free options may also lose out once students get to campus. One student we know of moved out of Kent State University’s residence hall following her freshman year due to a lack of gluten-free dining choices on campus. Kent State responded to concerns over gluten sensitivity by building a 100 percent gluten-free dining hall. In making this move, Kent State joined a select group of schools that have made meeting diverse dietary needs a priority. These early adopters aren’t just a passing trend either. They’re responding to a very real demand for a safe environment where students don’t have to worry about what they eat.
Now think about the restaurants in college towns that may also lose out on a major demographic by failing to provide gluten-free menus. College students are just starting to flex their muscles as independent consumers. In many cases, they are forming judgments about where they want to eat and these decisions can have a lasting impact on restaurants where they don’t have to think about the safety of their food.
Meeting the needs of gluten-sensitive patrons is particularly important for the quick service and fast food restaurants that proliferate in college towns. QSRs and fast food restaurants that cater to on-the-go students can separate themselves from the pack and inspire lasting loyalty among their student customers by offering gluten-free dishes.
Creating Gluten-Free Environments
Although many restaurants have rolled out gluten-free menus, there is often a lack of understanding of what’s involved in creating an environment that is truly safe. For example, while restaurants promote gluten-free items on the menu, they may not use separate utensils and food stations to prepare this food. Because cross-contamination can have serious consequences for gluten-sensitive students, it’s essential that restaurants and college dining halls have thorough training on how to provide safe meals.
For these establishments, obtaining professional guidance can make a huge difference in the ability to deliver on gluten-free promises. One of the best ways to obtain expert guidance is to pursue third-party certification to validate that a restaurant is a certified gluten-free facility. The certification process endorses the safety and quality of a restaurant’s program to gluten-sensitive customers while providing invaluable tips on safe food preparation. Certification can also help facilities implement staff training on safe food preparation and handling.
Going to college is a major life event for students and their parents. Sudents deserve to have the full college experience in a way that meets their physical and emotional needs. For parents, knowing that their child’s school provides a safe enviromment can bring the peace of mind they need to send their children into adulthood with confidence. Schools and restaurants that meet the growing demand for a gluten-free lifestyle have the opportunity to move to the top of the class when it comes to student choice.
Chris Rich is vice president of development for the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), the industry leader in the certification of gluten-free products and food services through its programs, Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) and Gluten-Free Food Services (GFFS) Certification. Chris became a part of the gluten-free community when his son was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2013, and he is an advocate for gluten-free kids and teens. For more information, visit www.gluten.org, and contact Chris at Chris.Rich@gluten.org.