By Brianna Burke
Nestled in the heart of Massachusetts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is a hub for innovation. Academics focus mostly on innovations in STEM, but there are other exciting innovations happening on campus. WPI Dining Services has implemented some of these. They aim to fuel these innovative students with exciting options that keep in mind safety for those with food allergies. This August, the newest building on WPI’s campus, Foisie Innovation Studio and Messenger Residence Hall, opened. It is the home to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Planet Smoothie. Like the other dining locations on campus, they are adhere to the limited nut exposure policy, meaning they do not prepare anything that contains nuts or nut oils.
This change allows students with peanut and tree nut allergies (including coconut)—a large percentage of the population of students with food allergies—to dine safely alongside their peers.
The initiative to limit nut exposure in campus dining facilities stems from WPI’s involvement in the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) College Program. This program’s goals include “developing a comprehensive program to improve the safety and quality of life for college students with food allergies”.
According to FARE’s website: “Between 1997 and 2008, the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergy appears to have more than tripled in U.S. children.” Most of the students in colleges and universities today are born in 1996 or later; the beginning of this trend in nut allergies has already affected colleges and universities around the nation. Therefore, initiatives like the FARE College Program and WPI’s limiting nut allergen exposure in dining locations on campus are essential for the accessibility of students with these allergies.
In other Auntie Anne’s and Planet Smoothie locations, they use nuts in a few of their products, and these products, like the Almond Pretzel, are some of their top selling items according to their reports. In order to benefit our students with nut allergies at Planet Smoothie, yet still providing a similar nutrition profile, WPI’s location uses sunflower seed butter instead of peanut butter. According to manager Jill Dickinson, Planet Smoothie agreed to the change because it would enhance business, whereas taking the smoothies that contain nuts totally off the menu would decrease business. Planet Smoothie performed their own tasting trial of the sunflower seed butter smoothie and approved the swap prior to the opening in August and Auntie Anne’s removed the Almond Pretzel from their menu.
Director of Dining Services Joe Kraskouskas, said the switch to a facility which avoided nuts did not present as many challenges as they anticipated. Both students with nut allergies and parents of those students are happy with the result. One student said, “I’m a huge fan of what’s going on at the Planet Smoothie. Being able to order anything without the fear of cross-contamination is something I can rarely enjoy, but at Planet Smoothie, it is something that I can count on every visit! I get to try new things and be 100% confident that I’ll be okay”. Parents of students with nut allergies are also happy that their students have more opportunities and choices at any of the campus food establishments run by WPI Dining Services with their continued limited nut exposure policy.
Overall, this location has been a hit for the campus community and has seen a lot of success. It is a win-win for WPI students with nut allergies and WPI Dining Services. It is a perfect example of how innovation, and some easy swaps, can make dining accessible to a wider audience.