UConn’s Gluten-Free Food Program a National Model

by Paul Stern on December 22nd, 2010


Freedom from gluten is becoming easier than ever, especially if you happen to be eating at the University of Connecticut.

Are you gluten-intolerant?

If you are not, odds are you know someone who is.

And if you are – as are an estimated 1 in 100 people who have celiac disease – you know how hard it is to eat gluten-free.

But it is getting easier – especially if you are dining at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where the gluten-free menu is state of the art.

I sampled some of UConn’s gluten-free food the other day with Dennis Pierce, UConn’s director of dining services, and Robert Landolphi, manager of culinary development, the two guys who have made the university’s gluten-free dining program a national model.

My gluten-free buffalo chicken sandwich was, well, a buffalo chicken sandwich.

And that is part of the idea: moving gluten-free toward mainstream.

Pierce and Landolphi estimate there are 75 to 100 students with celiac disease on the UConn student meal plan. Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that causes a person’s autoimmune system to have a toxic reaction to gluten in the intestinal tract. The symptoms can be severe, debilitating, and because they are so varied, are sometimes hard to diagnose. Sufferers of the disorder must avoid eating gluten completely for the rest of their lives.

Gluten, of course, is found in any food made with wheat, barley, rye and a few less common grains. Eating a diet free of conventional bread, pasta and other wheat products can be challenging medically and socially for anyone. In an institutional setting like a student dining hall, staying gluten-free is normally even harder.

Add to that this complicating fact of college life: gluten is found in two staple foods – pizza and beer.

Pierce and Landolphi can’t help much with the beer problem, but they have pushed gluten-free foods as far into the mainstream as any college campus.

(An aside on the beer: Holiday Spirits, Inc., in Storrs carries Redbridge gluten-free beer, an Anheuser-Busch product made from sorghum. Store owner Jerry Mizla says it is very popular. “If you see it cold in my cooler,” he says, “it’s movin’ big time.”)

Aware of UConn’s expertise, Boston Children’s Hospital is working with Pierce to develop informational videos and training materials for celiac patients and food service professionals. He and Landolphi are also planning make a presentation at National Association of College and University Foodservices Conference in Dallas, Texas, where they will talk about meeting the gluten-free needs on campus.

The popularity of the gluten-free diet has been growing almost exponentially in the last few years as doctors become better at diagnosing celiac disease. Demand for gluten-free foods has been growing dramatically in the last few years and, according to Pierce, “it only gets bigger.”

Elisabeth Hasselbeck of “The View” wrote a book about her experience with the disorder, and medical researchers say even people without a diagnosed case of celiac disease are claiming to feel better on a gluten-free lifestyle .

Landlophi has a more personal relationship to the condition. His wife was extremely ill from undiagnosed celiac disease that, among other things, shut down her reproductive system. His web site “The Gluten-Free Chef” tells the wrenching story of how scary and troubling life became for the couple until they discovered the easy solution: a gluten-free diet for life.

That set Chef Landolphi on a quest to develop a collection of gluten-free recipes that would be as satisfying and tasty as any other food. He compiled them into a book entitled the “Gluten Free Every Day Cookbook,” published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. He’s got a second one in the works, he says, entitled “Quick Fix Gluten Free.”

His expertise has made him a popular advocate of gluten-free cooking. He appears often on television and makes regular presentations on gluten-free cooking.

It took Landolphi and his staff a couple months to go through and adjust many of the recipes used in the preparing food at UConn. (Pierce estimates that the university serves about 180,000 meals per week.) Of course, about 20 percent of the original recipes had no gluten to begin with, they said. Others might only require substituting a gluten-free soy sauce or similar ingredient for a standard one.

The department also spent a lot of time evaluating many of the gluten-free products they buy to create their gluten-free menu.  Landolphi says the selection and quality has improved through the years.

Making gluten-free pizza from scratch, for example, would be difficult, since to avoid cross-contamination, the dough would have to be prepared in a separate baking facility. So the crust is purchased, the topped and baked on campus.

Despite being perhaps the third-largest residential student food program in the nation, UConn manages to provide an enormous number of eating options for its students in general and specifically those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Gluten-free selections are available in all the dining halls, the university convenience stores, the food court in the student union building and at Chuck and Augie’s Restaurant. The latter’s extensive gluten-free menu qualifies it for listing on Gluten-Free Travelsite.com, a service designed to help people with celiac disease find good places to eat.

Prospective students with celiac disease – or food allergies, for that matter – get personalized attention from the dining services staff, Pierce points out. It begins with a discussion of the student’s dietary requirements by a team of dining service professionals, including Landolphi and the cook in charge of the student’s specific dining hall. A student with gluten-intolerance sometimes also has sensitivities to other food allergens that are included in the assessment.

Cooking protocols also needed to be established in the UConn kitchens so that gluten doesn’t accidentally contaminate gluten-free foods. At Chuck and Augie’s, for example, the gluten-free choices (there are more than 20) are served on a plate with wavy sides. It is an unnoticeable distinction to the diner, but a signal to wait staff that special care is in order.

Source: Reprinted by permission. http://mansfield.patch.com/articles/uconns-gluten-free-food-program-a-national-model

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Author Information: Paul Stern
Now that he’s a graduate of Manchester Community College’s culinary arts program, Paul Stern is ready to combine his 35+ years of journalism experience with food. He’ll be discovering dining delights at local eateries, providing insights on food and cooking trends, and introducing us to great chefs in North Central Connecticut. He’ll be cooking in his kitchen in Ashford, too.  Email Paul here.


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