Registered dietitians help Penn State students navigate on-campus dining

February 10, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Among new students arriving at Penn State in fall 2019, 322 reported they had a food allergy. The Registered Dietitian’s Office is on hand to support those students, and all students, as they dine on campus during their time at Penn State. 

The office consists of two registered dietitian nutritionists as well as several student nutrition assistants, and provides nutritional and wellness education and support for Campus Dining operations at all Penn State campuses that offer on-campus dining.

“We help students at all campuses navigate their food choices so they can have a satisfying dining experience at Penn State, no matter what their dietary restrictions or preferences might be,” says registered dietitian Katy Petrosky. “Our goal is always to make our operations safer for students with food allergies, and more inclusive for students who have specific food preferences.”

Because food allergies are a primary concern when it comes to students’ safety, the Registered Dietitian’s Office makes sure all foods are clearly labeled with allergen information. FDA guidelines require disclosure of the “big eight” allergens, and Penn State dietitians go above and beyond that by tagging for sesame, the fastest-rising allergen, as well. For the incoming class in fall 2019, more students disclosed an allergy to sesame than to soy, which is one of the “big eight.”

Flagging sesame as an allergen puts Penn State ahead of the game, Petrosky says, because it seems likely that the FDA will require labeling for sesame in the future. 

Dietitians track food allergens from the moment food ingredients arrive at Penn State. Every item coming into Housing and Food Services is assigned a unique four-digit number through the FoodPro system, and using that number, dietitians track what allergens each item contains. They tag each allergen, and that tag stays with the food item as it makes its way into recipes and is listed on online menus. 

“Many students use our online menus, and we want that information to be as complete and robust as possible,” Petrosky says. “So a student can see, before they head over to Warnock for lunch, what’s on the menu and what allergens are in each item.” Students can also filter the menus to show only certain foods — if they only want to see gluten-free items, for example. And menu changes — last-minute ingredient substitutes, for example — can be updated right away on the online menus.

Petrosky points out that of those 322 incoming students who self-disclosed a food allergy, only 39 of them have contacted the Registered Dietitians Office for support or information.

“We’re not capturing everybody who has a food allergy, so where are all the others getting their information? Our online menus and signage in the dining commons are a great start, but we’re going a step further," said Petrosky.

This step further involves breaking down the ingredients of each dish, Petrosky added. Right now, information is displayed for the main components of each dish on the menu. For a cauliflower chorizo tostada, for example, menu information doesn’t include the individual ingredients in the chorizo sausage. To tap into that detailed information, the dietitians are embarking on a major project — reviewing more than 4,000 menu items for food allergens in each ingredient. 

“With the help of our student nutrition assistants, we’re reaching out to the manufacturers to get updated information on these menu items,” Petrosky says. “The students are working their way through a master spreadsheet of these items and putting the updated information into the FoodPro system. It will be a long haul, but we want to build it in a way that we can then have continuous review.”

Other initiatives for the Registered Dietitians Office include preparations for National Nutrition Month in March. In collaboration with Health Promotion and Wellness in Student Affairs, student nutrition assistants are planning weekly events focusing on different nutrition topics, including healthy options for breakfast, snacks, and beverages as well as building a healthy dinner plate. 

“We want students to be aware of all the healthy, delicious options out there,” Petrosky said. “Our managing chefs at each dining location, as well as our executive chefs, put a lot of thought, time, and energy into creating and testing new recipes, collecting feedback, and tweaking as needed.” 

Petrosky, who graduated from Penn State in 2006, says a lot has changed since she was a student when it comes to dining and food options on campus.

“Staff are more open and receptive to student input and perspectives,” she says. “The managing chefs are so willing to work with students about their dietary needs, short term or long term, one on one. I’m actually shocked that in a place this big you can have the chef working with you to create a special menu that keeps you safe and healthy.” 

Last Updated February 24, 2020