Bon Appetit!

By Jenny Barnett, July 6, 2022

Improvements made to Ithaca College dining.

Among the plans for improvements to Ithaca College dining when operations were insourced in 2019 was the opportunity to create a more inclusive campus dining environment. While the pandemic caused some delays, two major initiatives—allergy training across dining services, and halal certification—were implemented this spring. 

Allergen Awareness

An estimated 32 million Americans have food allergies—a figure that has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. And, for many college students, dining on campus is the first time they are eating unfamiliar goods in a new environment outside the family home. They may find themselves exposed to foods they have never come across before.  

Kevin Grant, executive chef of upper campus, points out that one in four first-time allergic reactions happens outside the home in a restaurant or food service setting.  

“Someone may never have known they were allergic to something and the first time they've ever had that ingredient is in our dining facility,” Grant said. “We have to be prepared for that, and we have to know what's in our food.” 

With this in mind, all IC food services staff—from chefs and managers to servers and dishwashers—took allergy training and certification offered by leading food allergy training specialist AllerTrain over the 2022 winter break. 

Topics covered included the top allergy causing foods, gluten-free training, and proper food prep, with the aim of enabling IC dining staff to better serve those with special dietary needs, avoid food allergy-related incidents, recognize when someone is having an allergic reaction, and know how to respond if those reactions occur. 

Sessions were led by Grant, who has a decade’s experience working in allergy accommodations, has been trained in AllerTrain for many years, and became certified as an AllerTrain trainer 2018. 

Managers and supervisors took a more in-depth course while others took AllerTrain Lite.  

Grant believes strongly that it is the responsibility of the food provider to protect consumers—and that a chef should never serve a meal without knowing all its contents.  

“We are in the hospitality business,” he says. “Our concern is always our customer first.” 

Nine common foods — known as “The Big 9” — are identified by the FDA as the cause of around 90% of all allergic reactions: wheat/gluten, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and sesame, which was added to the list by the FDA in April 2021, but is not required to be labelled until January 1, 2023. IC is, however, already including it. 

“Someone may never have known they were allergic to something and the first time they've ever had that ingredient is in our dining facility. We have to be prepared for that, and we have to know what's in our food.” 

Kevin Grant, Executive Chef of Upper Campus

Tree nuts are called out collectively, although as Grant points out, people can be allergic to some (such as almonds and cashews) and not others (such as Brazil nuts). Coconut is also included in that category but it is actually a fruit; at IC, coconut is noted separately.  

According to Grant, the most common allergy for the college age population seems to be milk. Among younger children, it seems to be peanuts. For adults, it's shellfish, tree nuts, and peanuts. 

All composed food items containing any major allergens are now prominently labelled across IC dining facilities, so students can make informed decisions about what they are about to consume. 

While “The Big 9” are responsible for most allergic responses, there are over 150 additional ingredients that can also be an issue.  

“We often see people allergic to onions, garlic, pepper, beef, and chicken. And yellow dye number five,” says Grant.  

Foods containing these ingredients, however, are not individually labelled and it is the responsibility of every chef to know what has gone into the food they create. Most food served at IC Dining is made from scratch, so preparers know exactly what goes into what they make. Other items, such as pre-breaded chicken, require the chef to know ingredients from the label.  

A diner with a specific allergy can ask someone out front to check with the person who made the dish whether the allergen is included in the list of ingredients.  

The same protocols are followed at the Ithaca Bakery and Gimme Coffee locations on campus since these are run by IC—and expected from outside vendors, such as Chick-N-Bap in the food court. 

Dining doesn’t only deal with allergens. It is also important for those with sensitivities or intolerances to be made aware of ingredients. Many students, for example, are lactose intolerant—not potentially life-threatening but having an impact on dietary choices. Alternative and lactose-free milks—and lactose-free ice cream—are readily available. Vegan mac and cheese is most often made using oat milk, since soy milk contains a Big 9 allergen. 

Foods are also labelled for dietary preferences, noting the presence of pork and alcohol, and highlighting vegetarian, vegan and halal offerings.  

IC Menu Labels

In total, IC has 15 menu labels:

  • G-gluten
  • E-egg
  • M-milk
  • S-soy
  • Ss-sesame
  • P-pork
  • F-fish
  • Sf-shellfish
  • Pn-peanut
  • Tn-tree nut
  • C-coconut
  • A-alcohol
  • V-vegetarian
  • VG-vegan
  • Halal

For example, an item such as double chocolate chip cookies would have the following labels: G, E, M, S, and V. 

Dining services also works individually with students who have extremely restricted diets. Rachel Showalter ’25 has multiple food allergies—among them gluten, soy, dairy, various meats, coconut, fish, cinnamon, mango and kiwi—and has to be very careful about what she eats. 

She learned from a young age to look at ingredient lists, and often has to bring her own food to events where she can’t be sure about what is being served.  

IC’s approach to food allergens was one of the reasons Showalter chose the college—it was the most accommodating of all those she was accepted to. She communicated with Grant prior to her arrival on campus and he came up with a plan specific to her needs.  

“Kevin has been very helpful,” she says. 

Showalter has three pre-prepared meals every day, packaged and kept away from the other food. A typical menu might be breakfast of eggs, bacon or sausage with hash browns (to which she adds ketchup); a ham sandwich on gluten-free bread and salad or beans and rice for lunch; dinner is a vegetable—squash or zucchini—with pork as the protein, accompanied by gluten-free pasta, potatoes or rice. 

She is used to the restrictions. “I think other people would have more variety in their diets. But this is just how I live, I don't mind it,” she said. 

Grant advises any student with allergy concerns to contact him and Student Accessibility Services to discuss their dietary accommodations. 

Halal Certification

In April 2022, Ithaca Dining Services, in partnership with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) began offering certified halal food in Terrace Dining Hall and other locations across campus—in time for this year’s Ramadan celebrations. 

Halal means “permissible” in Arabic. Halal food follows dietary standards as outlined by Islamic law.  

Halal foods are free of wine, beer and liquor—as well as balsamic and wine vinegars. Very low alcohol percentage products, such as .4% are allowed but should be labelled as such. They contain no gelatin or non-halal meats, and have not been deep-fried in oil shared with non-halal ingredients.  

Offering halal options to the Muslim community had been part of the new IC Dining plans, but restrictions imposed by the pandemic held the certification process back. Once COVID stipulations were eased, Dining partnered with Etimad Halal to make the necessary changes.  

“It was something we had talked about and wanted to do,” said Director of Dining Services Scott McWilliams. “We implemented it as quickly as we could.” 

The initiative was spearheaded by Chaim Goldgrab, kosher supervisor and manager of Terrace Dining Hall’s Kosher Korner. Since being brought to IC by international kosher certification company STAR–K in January 2021, Goldgrab had already revamped IC’s kosher menu.  

Goldgrab and his team modified some items further to confirm to halal specifications—for example, removing beef stews and chicken marsala from the halal menu since those recipes contain small amounts of alcohol—and looked at percentage contents of wine-based vinegars. In accordance with the new standards all halal food is now clearly identified. 

“I'm really grateful for this change. We are a pretty small population on campus, but I strongly believe that Muslim students deserve some sort of accommodations for their meals.”  

Kinza Ceesay ’22

IC has also purchased boneless, skinless halal-certified chicken, which will be available in Terrace Dining Hall, Campus Center Dining Hall, Towers Marketplace, Ithaca Bakery and the Food Court. Certain beef products at allergen-free stations will also be halal; and halal-certified food will be available for pickup at Campus Center. 

The college was able to offer halal-certified Ramadan food for the first time this year. Students could sign up for to-go meals, and the college hosted an iftar celebration in Muller Chapel on the evening of April 5. One of the two main meals during Ramadan, iftar is served after sunset to break the fast; the other—suhoor—is served before dawn before fasting starts. 

Kinza Ceesay ’22, who founded IC’s MSA in 2021 was excited to see the certification formalized and to be able to share iftar with other Muslim students.  

“I'm really grateful for this change,” she said. “We are a pretty small population on campus, but I strongly believe that Muslim students deserve some sort of accommodations for their meals.”  

Ceesay estimates there are around 30 students at Ithaca College who identify as Muslim; the iftar event catered for around 40 people—not only undergraduates but the broader community, including graduate students and staff. Goldgrab reports seeing Muslim students who didn’t know each other having an opportunity to meet. 

Ceesay sees the initiative as an important milestone—and not just in terms of the halal certification itself. Feedback from other students revealed that the recognition and the consideration meant a lot to them. They were able to eat together, and enjoy each other’s company.  

“There’s this greater sense of community and belonging,” she said.  

During her senior year, Ceesay was thrilled to see the new menu implemented before she graduated. While on campus, she ate halal options as often as she could, and cited fish fillet, buffalo cauliflower and chicken paprika as some of her favorites. “I’m glad I got to experience it.”