To Scott Surratt, executive chef of West End Market at Cochrane Hall, helping students feel included in the dining center means listening to all of their needs. “If only a small percentage of our students have a given dietary concern, with so many students here and such diversity, that's collectively a lot of affected students,” he said.

Surratt and his team have recently made the dining center’s menus more inclusive by removing soy allergens from over 40 percent of the house-made recipes and expanding their halal offerings. 

Seeing the essential role that eating has in our sense of community, belonging, and safety makes it easier to connect to others’ food needs, said Surratt. "I don’t have allergies to think about, but I’ve experienced food insecurities where I was not able to eat as I would have liked, so making sure everyone has healthy and culturally appropriate options is important to me."

Food allergies affect approximately 4 percent of adults in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. The nine most common food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame — collectively account for about 90 percent of the food allergy reactions. 

With the diversity among the menus and variations in culinary styles available in Virginia Tech Dining Services' more than 40 shops, chefs within each dining center lead their own allergy-friendly initiatives. While all dining centers have eliminated soy from a significant number of recipes, some types of cuisine may rely more heavily on regional ingredients or cooking styles with more or fewer allergy-friendly ingredients.  

Dining patrons can easily filter the menus of each venue for the top nine allergens, gluten or vegetarian, vegan, and halal dishes with Dining Services’ online menus or with the Hokie Dining app.

Dining Services has regularly used education resources from the allergen awareness and advocacy organization Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). After FARE created training and certification programs specific to collegiate food services, the university's dietitians adopted the training for executive culinary staff in September 2021 to ensure industry-leading allergen awareness across all units. 

“Working tightly with the dietitians, we realized that many of the soy allergens we used didn’t serve a culinary need,” said Surratt. “We had been adding the soy allergen with our pan sprays or frying oils when there are other options.”

While Dining Services regularly invites student ideas and feedback to improve its food and services through the contact form on its homepage, its Table Talk events, and Student Advisory Committee, more nuanced projects require greater involvement with student communities. 

Yusera Ishrat, president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at Virginia Tech, said Dining Service’s approach to including students in menu decisions has made a difference.

“The idea of halal dining was introduced to Virginia Tech by MSA in 2015. We were able to be one of the few universities in Virginia with halal dining on campus,” said Ishrat, a senior in business information technology, cybersecurity management, and analytics in Pamplin College of Business. “When I came on as a project manager, I connected with the nutritionists in dining and sat in on chef meetings to explain the needs of so many Muslim students.” 

Ishrat said one of her main goals currently is to inform students about the range of halal options on campus. “People didn't know these choices existed, or the work that we and dining are putting in to make a positive impact on the students and their experience here.”

Surratt said the changes to create more allergy-friendly and halal choices have presented sourcing challenges, but the reward is knowing that more students will be able to enjoy his team’s food and feel at home in Dining Services’ community. “With Rosso, our new Italian concept, we’ve been using halal pepperoni since it opened this semester,” said Surratt, “and all Fighting Gobbler’s burgers will be halal now. So that will open a lot of options for our Muslim community.”

Surratt said he’s grateful for the collaborations between students, dietitians, and culinary staff to ensure everyone has a seat at the table with Dining Services. 

"There's just so much potential for students to be able to get involved and make a difference,” said Ishrat. “That the administration is so accepting of that and willing to work with us is amazing.”

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