USC Hospitality takes a hands-on approach to accommodate student allergies

When dining on campus, students with food allergies have three different dining hall options

A photo of USC's Parkside dining hall.

For the roughly 2,000 students on campus with food allergies, finding a place to dine that is allergy-friendly is crucial.

“I have had food allergies ever since I can remember,” said Kay Sarno, a junior majoring in music. “I know that there are a couple of dining halls that have accommodations for students with food allergies.”

USC is taking a hands-on approach to accommodate the campus dining needs of students with food allergies, according to Lindsey Pine, the registered dietician for USC Hospitality.

“In almost all cases, we have ways to accommodate the students. We can do this through the Allergen Awareness Zone at Parkside and the Gluten Awareness Zone at EVK,” Pine said. “If those stations still aren’t enough, our chefs at any of the dining halls can provide individualized safe meals for students.”

An estimated 85 million Americans suffer from food allergies, including 32 million who experience possible life-threatening circumstances. Someone is sent to the emergency room every three minutes because of a food allergy reaction, according to Food Allergy Research & Education, a non-profit organization focused on food allergy awareness and advocacy.

Reactions can range from itchiness to the swelling of the face and tongue to life-threatening anaphylaxis, which is when the body goes into shock. Characterized by a slowing pulse rate, a drop in blood pressure and a closing of the airways, this can be fatal.

Incoming students with special dietary needs are required to register with the Office of Student Accessibility Services (OSAS) and submit the required medical documentation before the semester begins, according to Pine. Once the student’s application is approved, an OSAS advisor is assigned to the student and a registered dietitian will work with residential dining to help accommodate the student’s special dietary needs.

“I meet with the students to go over their options and give them advice on which places are most suitable for them and which areas to avoid,” Pine said.

USC students who have food allergies have three dining hall options, each with a dining station or zone that offers dedicated alternative dining options to students with dietary restrictions and allergies: USC Village Dining Hall, Allergen Awareness Zone at Parkside Restaurant & Grill and Gluten Awareness Zone at Everybody’s Kitchen.

“The Allergen Awareness Zone does not use any of the top eight allergens, gluten and sesame,” Pine said. “Parkside also does not use any products that contain peanuts or tree nuts as ingredients in the entire dining hall.”

USC has online menus to indicate allergens on food items, Pine said.

“However, if a student has a true anaphylactic food allergy, they should be using the special dietary stations or using our order ahead protocol so the chefs can cook a safe meal for them,” Pine said.

USC Hospitality provides some training to employees about food allergies, covering what they are, why they are important, and how to lower risk and take precautions in the kitchen as well as in the dining halls.

“I know that most places on USC campus will answer any questions about food allergies,” Sarno said. “My experience is that our campus dining halls try their best to accommodate people with food allergies.”

As of Jan. 1, 2015, California law mandates that public schools stock EpiPens onsite, as well as requires the training of staff on EpiPens. Private schools, however, may determine whether to make EpiPens available or to train personnel. USC Hospitality does not carry EpiPens in their dining halls, according to Pine.

“If a student has an anaphylactic food allergy, it is crucial that they carry EpiPens with them at all times, on and off campus,” she said.

Although USC Hospitality helps mitigate food allergy incidences on campus, ultimately, the responsibility lies with the student, Pine said.

“Ultimately, all of us, whether we are students, employees, or guests, need to look out for our own welfare,” Pine said. “But we do our best to accommodate students with all different types of special dietary needs and want them all to have the best and safest USC experience possible.”