Over 15 million Americans have food allergies. One-third of them are allergic to more than one major allergen: peanut, tree nut, milk, soy, shellfish, eggs, wheat and gluten. There are over 500 members of the Cornell community who adhere to a gluten-free diet, according to Michele Lefebvre, Cornell’s director of nutrition management. Each year in the U.S., 200,000 people require emergency medical care for an allergic reaction to food.
Commendably, Cornell has an allergen-free dining hall, a single-use rule for dining hall plates, separate service utensils for each item and labeling of major allergens for each menu item. Nonetheless, these measures fall short in its efforts to fully prevent and accommodate students with life-threatening allergies.
Cornell must undertake a series of absolutely necessary measures to guarantee a safe dining environment for students with allergies.
Expand Risley Dining’s Hours
In January 2017, Risley Dining transitioned to a fully gluten-free, tree nut-free and peanut-free kitchen. However, there still remains a number of pitfalls. For one, Risley is only open for lunch and dinner service with limited hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m.-7 p.m. for dinner. In comparison, every other dining hall on campus is open for at least three hours for dinner. For students with classes and conflicts, the tight service hours at Risley can preclude accessibility.
What’s more, Risley is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. For those with life-threatening allergies, the 64 hours between Friday evening and Monday lunch can be a grueling and anxious period. Ideally, we urge a plurality of allergen-free dining options at Cornell, but at the bare minimum, we implore Risley to maintain full hours with open breakfast and weekend access.
Currently, if you are a West Campus resident, meals at Risley are deducted from the 50 non-West dining hall allowance. In a 12-week semester, this would mean roughly four meals each week allowed at Risley. This is egregious considering that West Campus students are required to purchase the unlimited meal plan for $5,924 each year. Risley should accept meal allowances from all meal plans.
Better protection: Epinephrine
According to the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), more than 30 colleges — including Columbia University, University of California Berkeley and Boston College — stock their dining halls with EpiPens. An instant injection of epinephrine is the only effective treatment in the life-threatening case of anaphylaxis. Each dining hall should be supplied with a set of two EpiPens so Cornell can be prepared in case of an emergency.
EpiPens allow for an extra measure of protection in dining halls, but must also be met with the appropriate employee training. All dining staff should be properly trained in recognizing the symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction and administering an EpiPen.
Crossing off Cross-Contamination
In dining halls as busy and bustling as Cornell’s, it is easy for cross-contamination to occur. Whether in meal preparation or the reuse of serving utensils in multiple dishes, major allergens can be easily spread due to carelessness or ignorance.
First and foremost, to stop cross-contamination, greater awareness of dietary restrictions must be promoted amongst students. The dining hall can lead the way in safety measures, but students must abide by them. Just as there are floor meetings and sexual assault prevention talks at the beginning of the semester, a general information session is necessary for all students to educate them on the prevalence on allergens and the proper dining hall conduct to inhibit cross-contamination.
To prevent cross-contamination, Boston University takes a three-pronged approach in the kitchen: audits of food production and recipe adherence, frequent changes of serving utensils and access to individual packets of bulk items such as peanut butter and other condiments. Cornell should follow suit and beyond: allergen-containing and allergen-free items should be placed in distinct sections, rather than side-by-side as they often are.
Only the West Campus dining halls call for a single-use plate policy, a measure only scarcely enforced with many unaware of the rule. This single-use plate policy should be a blanket rule across all campus dining halls, strongly enforced, for hypoallergenic and, of course, hygienic reasons.
One initiative Cornell is particularly proud of is the peanut-free toaster in the North Star Dining Room. Yet, it prompts the question why toasters like such are not ubiquitous across campus? We urge that each dining hall across campus is better stocked with allergy-free appliances and an expanded allergy-friendly corner.
More Effective Labeling
Labeling is the greatest means of communication for those with allergies: Currently, dishes are marked with labels noting major allergens. For students that have particular allergens, rather than blanket labels such as dairy or tree nuts, it is much more informative to have the specific ingredient identified.
Lastly, the most effective way to curtail the threat of an allergic reaction is to diminish the amount of meals that use major allergens. Does the flavor and enjoyment of Pad Thai, a splash of cashew oil, or nutty texture outweigh the potentially fatal threat to the multitudes of students struggling with major allergies? Too many of the dishes served at Cornell unnecessarily and superfluously include major allergens.
Joining the likes of many universities across America in their safety initiatives, Cornell must protect all students, especially the most vulnerable. Cornell Dining, whose food program is among the best nationwide, must prioritize allergy prevention to be their utmost commitment and responsibility.
Laura DeMassa and Canaan Delgado are sophomores at Cornell University. They can be reached at [email protected]. Double Take appears every other Tuesday.