CI tries to avoid allergy emergencies

CI tries to avoid allergy emergencies

Nathan Tolfa

When first entering the Whittier College dining hall — called the Campus Inn (CI) — students will find a sign sitting on a small wooden desk. The sign is a legend, featuring a number of letters in multicolored circles: a green V means vegetarian, a teal VG means vegan, and a gold H means the food item was humanely raised. In the CI itself, there are a number of serving stations, each with a small menu listing what is being served, with these markers presented next to food items when applicable.

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 Ideally, these signs would help students determine if they can eat a given food item — if they have a seafood allergy they can stay away from food marked with an S, if they can not eat gluten, they can trust that a food item marked with gold circle containing a down pointing arrow and a G is safe to eat. Despite this system, second-year Emily Koda has experienced a number of allergic reactions when eating at the CI.

“Squash — like zucchini and yellow squash — are often incorporated into food or served as sides,” wrote Koda in a message to the Quaker Campus. “Also sometimes peanut, banana, and maple are incorporated into desserts, so I just have to avoid [them]. I’ve had quite a few mild reactions to what I can only assume to be cross-contamination.”

Third-year Associated Students of Whittier College (ASWC) Student Body Representative Jeffrey Tam spoke about his experiences seeing a student have an allergic reaction at the CI. “I was worried … because she said like, even taking a lick of a peanut, [she may have to] go to a hospital.”

“One thing that I do have to say about the cross-contamination,” said CI General Manager Craig Irby, “is the managers, all the cooks, all the associates go through a food allergy awareness training every year … So the chef puts all these icons on the menus. He connects them to the online menu, but really the first line of defense is really the servers and the customers.” 

Irby explained that if a student knows they are allergic to a specific food, they should ask to speak with management to figure out what they can and cannot eat. Irby also said he tells his employees to err on the side of caution when answering student’s questions about the food they are being served. “If you don’t know it contains it,” said Irby, “[I’d] rather be safe than sorry when it comes to food allergens.”

Certain dietary restrictions are marked on the CI’s daily menu, on signs placed around the CI, and online; however, the scope of allergens listed on these menus is somewhat limited. If a student has a serious food allergy that falls outside the eight major allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans — they may need to speak with a manager about working out a tailor-made menu.

 “We do custom-tailor menus for students,” said Irby. “We’re not going to customize for everybody, but there’s always an option.” Irby also said that students can speak to a dietition if they feel the need. “Bon Appetit has local dietitians that can come in to give more education on how to make better choices, and the dos and don’ts on picking something that will be potentially bad for [a student’s] allergy.”

Irby said that cross-contamination when students are served by a Bon Appétit employee — Bon Appétit is the company Whittier hires to cater the CI — is unlikely, and precautions are taken by the chefs, including preparing gluten and non gluten food items on separate grills to prevent it. 

However, the CI also features a number of self-serve stations, such as a fruit and salad bar, where students use tongs to get food for themselves. Irby emphasises that if a student is concerned about the dietary purity of a self-serve station, they can talk to management. “If a student has a gluten allergy,” said Irby, “and they feel like the tongs aren’t where they’re supposed to be, they can come talk to us, and we can always give them fresh [food]”.

CI management patrols around the dining hall during meal times in an attempt to curb the potential for cross-contamination at self-serving stations. “Last week, I did see a student warming up a quesadilla in [the microwave for gluten free food items],” said Irby. “I stopped her [and] reminded her that there’s a microwave somewhere else … After she did that, I had one of the employees go out and clean out the microwave.”

Irby believes that it is possible to prevent students from having allergy attacks, but doing so requires communication between CI staff and students. As of now, there are no plans to make any sweeping changes to the way Bon Appétit labels allergens — they use the same system to label the food they serve across the country, though Irby does have some minor alterations he wishes to make. Right now, every station in the CI has a small red sign that says “STOP[.] Have a food allergy? Speak with a manager about any ingredient questions.” Irby plans to replace the current signs with new ones that will be placed on some of the sneeze guards.

Irby encourages students with dietary restrictions to reach out to Bon Appétit management to communicate their needs. “[Students] can always come in,” said Irby. “They can email. They can call. They can see us in person. They can make an appointment, just so we can find out what their needs are. And we would rather hear from a student than the parents.”

Second-year Student Body Representative Kole Joachim plans to speak with Irby later this week about re-examining the way Whittier labels allergens. “I am going to be speaking with General Manager Craig Irby on Friday,” said Joachim. “Hopefully we will see a more exhaustive approach to labeling food allergens from this discussion.” Joachim will share the results of his discussion with the rest of Senate at their weekly Monday meetings in Villalobos.