Every day, Kimberly Mayer’s teams gather for a 10-minute huddle before they head out to satisfy a fundamental need across the Rensselaer campus: food.

The dialogue can spotlight everything from the newest menu options to daily food allergy safety trainings.

“We want these issues top of mind for everyone on staff. It’s something we have to stay in front of,” says Mayer, registered dietitian-nutritionist and dietitian for Rensselaer Dining Services. Since coming to Rensselaer in 2014, Mayer has led a number of salient food-allergy initiatives to ensure that every Rensselaer student with food allergies or intolerances, celiac disease, or other special diets has access to food that is safe, healthy, and—oh, yeah—tasty to boot.

Helping Students Make the Right Food Choices

In June, AllerTrain awarded Mayer its 2018 Best Food Allergy Innovations for Universities. This training organization, which promotes best practices for university food allergy and gluten-free food management, recognized Mayer for going above and beyond in providing new ways to cater to students with food allergies and special diets. In addition to introducing Rensselaer as the first campus in New York to stock epinephrine in the dining halls, Mayer facilitated the first “entity” course to train staff on a college campus.

Additionally, she instituted a purple, color-coded kitchenware system at all campus dining locations to prevent cross contact with common food allergens. These allergy kits are used to prepare an allergy-safe meal to prevent cross contact from occurring. To make life easier for those with peanut and tree nut allergies, Rensselaer Dining Services no longer cooks with peanuts or tree nuts in any of the four dining halls on campus.

Mayer continues to find new ways to educate students about their dining options and help them make informed food choices. “Working as the registered dietitian at Rensselaer has opened my eyes to the importance of providing a safe and inclusive environment for students with all types of special dietary needs,” she says.

We chatted with Mayer about collegiate eating habits, what’s new on the campus food scene, and how students should avail themselves of her services:

How do a Rensselaer student’s eating habits compare with the daily recommended diet?

So-So. Some of the students I speak with want to eat healthier. But then I’ll see their plates piled high with French fries and other not-so-healthy choices. Rensselaer Dining Services has a healthy eating program called Mindful that I promote with all of my students who are trying to eat healthier. Mindful items are available in all of our dining locations (even retail). Just look for the little green apple next to a menu item and it will guide you to a healthy choice.

We also have a great app called “Bite” that helps students decide what they want to eat before they come into the dining hall. The Bite app also lists the nutrition and allergy information for each menu item. Making a few small changes can make a big difference in your overall health. Replace sugary drinks with water or milk, substitute spiralized vegetables for pasta, or put a burger over salad instead of a bun.

What’s new in campus food this year?

This summer, the kitchen inside the Student Union McNeil Room was completely gutted to make way for a Panera Bread restaurant. The restaurant will be a fully functioning Panera with the traditional Panera menu, including the full bakery lineup, with all breads and bakery items baked on-site.

And the BARH dining hall has transitioned to performance-based menus. It’s always leaned in that direction, but now the menus are focused on foods that enhance optimal athletic and mental performance—things like lean proteins, whole grains, steamed vegetables, and cauliflower and whole wheat pizzas. We want to provide the food that athletes and students need to fuel their bodies and minds to keep them at the top of their game.

What’s on the minds of Rensselaer students when they ask you for dietary advice?

Everything: losing weight, gaining weight, food allergies, eating disorders. But most of them want to eat healthier on a budget. Rensselaer students are very busy and they want to know how to choose healthy foods they can afford and prepare easily because they don’t have a lot of extra time.

Are you seeing a rise on campus of specific dietary needs or eating preferences?

In the four years I’ve been here, I’ve seen huge growth in multiple food allergies—students who are allergic to more than one thing. Last year we worked with 75 students who self-identified as having food allergies. And any allergy can be particularly difficult to navigate when they fall outside the top eight—milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. These less common allergies can include things like red meat, sesame seeds, avocados, food coloring, or MSG.

We’re also seeing a lot more students with celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder where gluten ingestion damages the small intestine, because there’s so much more testing being done now. The students here at Rensselaer are a hard-working bunch, and stress is a notoriously big player in people’s digestive issues. Even without having celiac or IBS (irritable bowl syndrome), more students on campus are choosing to eat gluten-free.

Vegan diets are also gaining in popularity, so we’re offering more plant-based menu items. Hummus, falafel, tempeh, tofu, and edamame are big sellers, and this year we are adding beyond-meat products.

How do the food-allergy programs work?

I meet individually to develop a customized meal program with every student who self-identifies as having food allergies, food intolerances, and special dietary needs. Rensselaer serves this population of students at varying levels and we really stay on top of it.

For example, MyZone is a secured, gluten-free, peanut- and tree-nut-free “kitchen pantry” in the dining hall where students access the room with a special ID. Inside, they can get fresh meals, bread, wraps, frozen items, and snacks that are free of the most common allergens.

There’s also what we call our “Simple Servings” food station, a program we started last year in the resident dining hall that serves ingredients that are free of seven of the eight most common food allergens. (Note: the station does serve fin fish). The server who works the station is highly trained in food allergies and serves each meal to prevent cross contact. We also have a program of color-coded allergy kits in each dining room that provides purple pots, pans, cutting boards, knives, and gloves to prepare allergen-friendly food and keep it free of contaminants.

We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to enhance our food allergy programs so that we are better today than we were yesterday.