September 20, 2023

Interview: Registered Dietitian Kristie Koerner of Columbia University

by admin in Peanut Allergy0 Comments

PeanutAllergy.com wanted to learn more Columbia University’s student dining program, so we spoke with full-time dining staff Registered Dietitian, Kristie Koerner.

Koerner is on site at the university’s two dining halls to answer any questions students may have regarding nutrition information.

Columbia Policy

“We knew that it was so important that we definitely made a drastic change–we didn’t want anything to have nuts or seeds in it. It’s a big deal to us and we make sure nothing is prepared that way,” Koerner says of Columbia’s healthy food serveries.

Not only is every single meal in Resident Dining prepared nut and seed free, the dining halls also have labeled food for those students who eat gluten free, dairy free, egg free, vegetarian, or vegan. A separate “nut zone” table features peanut butter, raw nuts, seeds, or any pre-packaged foods that contain nuts in them. A special set of red utensils is used at this station to completely eradicate any cross-contamination.

“Students want to know the facts about nutrition,” says Koerner, and when she gives them the facts, students give the university feedback: a dining advisory committee meets to hear special requests for changes and additions to the dining halls, everything from the food they want to the preferred dining experience. When the university had a completely raw vegan student, the chef made sure to have whole coconuts on hand, as well as kale and raw ginger.

Allergy Statistics

Kristie says most students with food allergies eat fairly plain food; chicken and vegetables are mealtime staples. However, with items on the menu like Kasha Pilaf, Vegan Southwestern Grilled Corn Salad, and Tilapia with Mango Jicama Relish, many are free to consume a wide variety of delicious meals. A typical vegan, gluten and nut free meal might be a mixed green salad with avocado, strawberries, blueberries, and mangos; which the chef did in fact prepare for students this summer.

Columbia students can also plan their meals ahead of time, thanks to the university’s online nutrition guide and food allergy filter. Recent additions, these tools allow students with dietary requirements to know which foods to choose come breakfast, lunch, or dinner time. Of the 5,500 students living on campus, 3,197 had a meal plan last year, and that’s estimated to go up to 3,400 this year. While the school doesn’t yet have official records of how many students have a food allergy, a new option to disclose any allergies was added to this year’s meal plan sign up. At least one hundred students eating in the dining halls have a food allergy and have identified themselves, and Kristie believes that there are even more who haven’t.

Make a Change

While the United States as a whole is revamping its school lunch programs, colleges around the country have been slower to catch on. Many students, especially those living on campus, choose to purchase a meal plan. In many cases this gives them all-you-can-eat access to the school dining hall.

The “freshman 15” has become a joke over the years, but the sometimes fat-laden choices in the cafeteria won’t make you laugh. Columbia has become an excellent model for what a school should offer its students for optimum health and therefore, performance. Other universities may be wise to follow Columbia’s recipe policy and labeling system.

Although they are highly allergenic to some, nuts are also a great source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, crucial elements to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Kristie suggests healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados in place of nuts. For protein and fiber, grains and beans are also recommended.

“It’s our job,” Kristie says, “It’s very important, someone could get seriously sick. We accommodate food allergies any way we can.”

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