Purdue Profiles: Carrie Anderson

February 7, 2011

Dining court supervisor Carrie Anderson displays a variety of gluten-free foods available upon request, including bagels, bread, rice and desserts. (Purdue University/ Mark Simons)

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Stop by Ford Dining Court during its busy lunch hour and you'll likely find Carrie Anderson behind the counter, preparing a gluten-free pizza. Anderson, a dining court supervisor, happily caters to students with food allergies because she knows firsthand about the frustrations of parenting a child with dietary restrictions.

At 8 months of age, Anderson's son was diagnosed with milk, egg, wheat and peanut allergies. For years, she avoided restaurants because she couldn't be certain about the ingredients that were used. She worried about a classmate sharing a carton of chocolate milk or a peanut butter cookie with her son. She spent time educating his teachers, daycare workers and other parents about reducing the lethal risks of cross-contamination while preparing foods for him.
Through her work in University Residences Dining Services, Anderson has channeled her passion for raising awareness about food allergies and intolerances into heading up an initiative to provide allergen-free alternative foods for Purdue students and other dining court patrons. Anderson chairs the committee charged with coordinating the effort to accommodate allergen-related dietary needs at all University Residences dining locations.

What kinds of food allergies and intolerances are most common?
Any food can cause a reaction, but 90 percent of all food allergies are caused by eight foods: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. There is a difference between an oral allergy, an intolerance and a true food allergy. People who get an itchy mouth or throat after eating fresh fruits or vegetables might have an oral allergy, which is typically related to pollen.

Diagnostics have been rapidly improving in recent years, so people who experience a negative reaction after ingesting certain foods finally have a name for it. One example is Celiac disease, a genetic condition where ingesting gluten causes the immune system to respond by damaging the small intestine. Symptoms vary and can be quite serious and uncomfortable for some.

How do you get in contact with students with allergies?
Many students self-identify. They've spent their entire lives being cautious about the foods they ingest. Whenever I have an opportunity to meet with students, I strike up a conversation. By talking about the different foods that we offer, students learn about the options and choices available to them.

Dining services staff encourages anyone with questions about allergens or ingredients to speak to a dining court administrator. Those individuals have been trained on preparing foods to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Depending on the severity of the allergy, even a few crumbs could cause a reaction. That's why we have a separate toaster for gluten-free breads. It's protected by a combination lock, and students who need to access it can request the code.

What other accommodations can the dining courts make for people with food allergies?

We have a number of gluten-free alternatives for baked goods such as bread, bagels, muffins and pizza crust. Marinades can be altered to eliminate soy; pastas are available without wheat. I've sought out gluten-free substitutions for foods that are available to all dining patrons, such as gluten-free taco meat. Just by changing the seasoning we use to prepare the taco meat, we're able to offer a product that more people can enjoy.

We also try to label foods that contain tree nuts or peanuts whenever possible to alert diners to potential allergens. But ultimately, it's the student's decision. Every individual is responsible for what they put into their own body. We provide as much information as possible so the individual is able to make an educated decision.

How does your work impact students with food allergies?
Twenty years ago, a student with allergies may have felt that living in the residence halls and eating in the dining courts was not an option. But why should they miss out on the great opportunities available to their peers? For students living in the residence halls, this is their home. I want them to know that options exist and that they can eat safely. Once I've met with a student, I create an allergy profile that details the student's known allergens. That document is available to dining court administrators to reference when preparing food for that student.
I had one student whose allergies were so severe, his diet was restricted to about 30 foods that he could consume. I met with him and his parents at the beginning of the school year. His parents were worried because they lived far away, and they were concerned about their son's safety. I know how that feels, so I work to create a level of understanding. I try my best to accommodate student schedules, although it can be difficult at peak times.

At Ford Dining Court, we serve 2,500 students at each meal. But every other student can walk right in and grab a slice of pizza off the line. I have deep empathy for students with allergies. They want to eat with their friends, they want to feel normal. So I do my best to meet their requests in a timely manner.

Do dining options affect a student's choice of college?
Absolutely. It can be stressful, time-consuming and expensive to find allergen-free alternative foods on your own. I want students to know that we have a team in place at Purdue to provide them with nutritious food that's safe for them to eat. I want them to go to Purdue. I want them to live in the residence halls. I feel like another mom to these students. If I can gain their trust, they'll come back.