NC State Dining Dietitian helps college food service operators improve service for students with food allergies


Food allergies are a growing concern in the United States, with more than 10 percent of the adult population living with one or more allergies. To help food service operators at the National Association of College and University Food Service (NACUFS) Conference this summer, NC State Dietitian Lauren Smith, RD, teamed up with three other collegiate dietitians to share how empathy can lead to better services for students with food allergies. 

The session, entitled “Serving Students with Specific Dietary Needs: An Empathetic Approach” was part of a series of experiential learning sessions at the conference, which was held July 13 – 16, 2002, in Spokane, Washington. 

“First, we assigned participants an allergen, then tempted them with a spread of delicious snacks: something that people with allergies experience pretty much every day,” explained Smith. “Their assignment was to fill their plate, steering away from anything to which they may be ‘allergic’ to.”

Lauren Smith (second from left) with program panel members
Jessica Tones, Gina Forster and Alice Ma.

Once they made their selections, the dietitians checked their plates to ensure it was “safe” to eat. 

“While most of the participants had selected the correct items, many inadvertently created a cross contact issue by using the tongs or spoons from one food to pick up another,” said Smith. “If this happened, we dumped their plate and had them go back again. The serving utensils and prep area is just as important as the food itself.”

While they enjoyed their snack, they watched “The Peanut Problem,” which is part of the Netflix documentary series titled “Rotten.” They focused particularly on a segment detailing the seriousness of peanut allergies, in particular, which can be deadly.

 “We then had a Zoom panel of students detailing their experiences eating on their campuses and in restaurants with food allergies,” Smith continued. “They talked about the fallout of accidentally consuming certain allergens and how they can’t participate in class for several days due to the severity of their reaction. It’s so difficult for them.”

The students also shared moments where they felt well cared for, as well. “One of our students, Tori Scott, shared how Chef Matt [Hodges] at Case took the time to make her a special plate of taco fixings to ensure everything was safe for her,” added Smith. “It meant the world to her to enjoy her meal without worrying.”

NC State student panelist Anna Hadley added after the session, “I’m glad food sensitivities are finally starting to get the care and attention they deserve in the world and I’m happy to have contributed to a panel that works on helping students like me with food allergies feel safe when eating at their schools.” 

At the end of the session, many of the participants were excited to take this experiential allergy training back to their own campuses. “The original idea came from Gina Forster, RD, at The Ohio State University, who invited me to be a part of the program. It had worked well on her campus, and it worked well at the conference. I look forward to implementing this kind of training here at NC State as well.”

Forster and Smith were joined by Jessica Tones, RD, from Carnegie Mellon and Alice Ma, RD, from Washington State University.

For more information about experiential allergy training at NC State, contact Lauren Smith at