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Arizona Student Unions explain why there’s only one gluten-free option on campus

Core%2B+located+in+the+Park+Student+Union+on+Sept.+19.+Core%2B+is+the+only+gluten-free+option+offered+on+campus.
Selena Quintanilla

Core+ located in the Park Student Union on Sept. 19. Core+ is the only gluten-free option offered on campus.

Having gluten-free dining options is more than just a want for some students, it’s a need.

“Core+ is the one dedicated gluten-free restaurant with ingredients that also do not contain peanuts, tree nuts or shellfish,” said Marites John, interim assistant director of the Student Unions.

Core+ can guarantee that gluten-free food will not get cross-contaminated, but other vendors on campus cannot say the same.

While On Deck Deli does have gluten-free options, John said the university purchases those items prepackaged from outside vendors to minimize cross-contamination.

Gluten is a mixture of proteins that form the structure of various cereal grains, and can be found in wheat, barley, rye and any items that contain byproducts of those three grains as well.

There are different conditions that are affected by gluten, according to Micah Donovan, a nutritional sciences graduate student. The primary is celiac disease, which is caused by genetics and will result in an autoimmune reaction due to the peptides from gluten. There is also a condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, where the person will still experience discomfort in the gastrointestinal system.

Brianna Barnhart is a performance junior who has a severe gluten allergy. If ingested, gluten in any form can make Barnhart sick for up to three days or more.

Barnhart said she lived in the dorms her freshman year and stuck to three select places to eat: Core+, On Deck Deli and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

“It got very boring very quickly,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart believes restaurants on campus do not make themselves more accessible to gluten-free students mainly because it may cause the restaurants more inconvenience, but there are simple changes that would be appreciated.

Barnhart said places in the Arizona Student Unions could add one or two gluten-free options and have a small, separate counter to prepare food on to avoid cross-contamination.

According to John, the UA is one of 38 schools that has a partnership with the Healthy America Foundation for the Healthier Campus Initiative.

She said this pertnership requires the UA to meet 23 different nutritional requirements over a three-year time span.

John also said the UA is one of 12 universities selected to participate in a national food allergen research and educational pilot program.

“Most of our food venues on campus are self-concept and self-created, meaning the executive and culinary teams created those,” John said.

According to John, these concepts for non-franchise vendors on campus are created based on survey and assessment data of customers, which is mainly students along with some faculty and staff.

She said the franchise brands must all go through a competitive request for proposal process in order to be a vendor on the UA campus. This bidding process is open to the free market, so any vendor is allowed to participate in the RFP process. Drafting an RFP can take from one to three months, depending on how complex it is and how many university partners need to review it, according to John.

“Finances is always part of it, but they have to contribute to student support and agree to employ students and offer a certain menu mix,” John said. “So there’s lots of different evaluation criteria, not just financial.”

For every RFP franchise process, there is an evaluation committee whose members rank which vendors they believe are best for campus, according to John.

She said the committee contains at least seven people on average and includes members of different stakeholder groups that have been invited to join, such as the current Associated Students of the University of Arizona president, a graduate student representative, Arizona Student Unions representatives and division representatives.

“Within Core+, it is a self-contained restaurant so it has its own grill and everything goes through there,” John said. “Versus a lot of our other units like downstairs in the food court, everything is made from the production kitchen in the lower level of the unions and then brought upstairs to the different units.”

The reason it is so difficult to regulate cross-contamination of gluten-free foods is that they can only designate something as a gluten-free vendor if they can really control it, which, according to John, they can do with Core+.

RELATED: Column: Looking for gluten free, food allergy friendly or just plain cheap healthy food at the UA? You’re SOL

If students ever want to express to the Arizona Student Unions administration that it wants a change of vendors, the vendor it suggests or ask for would have to compete alongside all the other vendors competing in the RFP process to gain a spot on campus, according to John.

She also said this is why it may be harder for smaller or more locally-based vendors to outcompete a franchise.

Some of the bigger franchises have initial contracts of five years with the university, and then an option to renew those contracts for another five years, according to John.

The Arizona Student Unions website for UA has a section called “Tell Us how we’re doing!” where students can submit any questions, comments or concerns they may have about the unions or the dining options available.

“We are always open to feedback,” John said. “We want to hear what you guys want as students and what the university community wants.”


Follow Jessica Suriano on Twitter.


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