At the beginning of the school year, the University rolled out its first gluten-free dining station at the University of Chicago—the retrofitted Mongolian grill in Cathey Dining Hall.
For most of the week, the Mongolian grill will continue to feature its standard stir-fry fare, but with three new options of gluten-free sauces and gluten-free noodles. On Tuesday and Thursday, the station serves entirely gluten-free dinners.
Gluten harms the health of people with celiac disease, and cutting gluten out of certain dining hall foods is beneficial to the health of others who have a less well-defined condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, about one in every 133 Americans has celiac disease.
“[For] people who have celiac disease, on Tuesdays and Thursdays we try to make sure they have a full dinner… so they can have a whole, hot meal,” Marketta Reed, who works at the station, said.
“We’re excited by the opportunity to create unique, authentic, and interesting food that our students with food allergies and sensitivities can enjoy,” Richard Mason, the executive director of UChicago Dining, said in an e-mail.
To prevent cross-contamination of gluten into food marked as gluten-free, utensils and serving equipment will be exclusive to the gluten-free station, and customers are discouraged from bringing food from other stations to the Mongolian grill.
Even croutons picked off a salad might leave behind too much gluten, according to Carol Shilson, the executive director of the Celiac Disease Center.
“[Cross contamination] is a big deal, especially when you are out to eat—or in a dining hall,” Shilson said.
The people working at the station received training to be certified as “gluten-free specialists” by the Gluten Intolerance Group, a nonprofit organization that supports people with gluten sensitivity. Reed said that at the training she was taught what gluten-free meant and how to avoid cross-contamination.
Second-year Viivi Jarvi has celiac disease and has been eating at the new station since the year began. She sometimes had trouble finding food in the dining hall last year.
“It was kind of a mess…. I’d go somewhere and be able to eat maybe the rice and the fruit or the salad station. That wasn’t the case every day. But I’m really happy about [the gluten-free station]. This made my life a lot easier, for sure,” Jarvi said.
Jarvi also encountered situations where food containing gluten seemed to be mislabeled as gluten-free, a situation that the new station has clarified.
“I know that no matter what else is going on at the dining hall I can always trust this and, like, spinach from the salad bar. So I’m happy about it,” Jarvi said.
The Celiac Disease Center, an advocacy and research organization based in the University of Chicago Medical Center, has worked with both the University and the Medical Center to improve their accommodations for people with celiac disease. Part of that process is an audit the Gluten Intolerance Group performed in dining areas at the University and the Medical Center earlier this month.