The New Niche: Gluten-Free Dining Halls

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Out with pizza, in with poke bowls. That’s the new culinary strategy at Kent State and Cornell University, which this school year rolled out the first certified gluten-free dining halls.

An estimated 5 to 10 percent of college students have celiac disease or other gluten-related disorders, according to Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment in Boston. For them, avoiding gluten — wheat, rye, barley and cross-contaminated oats — isn’t a fad diet but a medical necessity. Even a bread crumb in the communal cream cheese could wreak gastrointestinal havoc, causing symptoms that lead to missed classes and more.

A 2016 survey by the New England Celiac Organization concluded that “college students with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity face overwhelming complications in their social and academic lives.”

Kent and Cornell are hoping tastier offerings attract students without food restrictions so allergy sufferers won’t feel isolated. Gone are rock-hard bread and crumbly baked goods. The most popular dishes at Cornell’s Risley dining room, which reopened this semester certified as gluten, peanut and tree-nut free, include poke bowls, stir fries, huevos rancheros and apple pie cupcakes.

There’s also a marketing angle in responding to the rising rate of gluten-related diagnoses. “Families tell us that Kent has become a top contender because this option exists,” said Shay Little, vice president for student affairs.

Amber Terschak, a Cornell senior, has celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes and a corn allergy. “It’s a huge relief to know I’m never going to become sick because of the food I eat here,” she said. “Just to be able to eat a grilled cheese again is incredible.”