Dietary restrictions answered by Special Diet Kitchen


ISU Dining accommodates students with dietary restrictions through their Special Diet Kitchen.

As Rachel Aird makes her way through the Union Drive Community Center (UDCC) and into the Special Diet Kitchen, she is greeted by the welcoming presence of one of the two chefs on staff.

Aird, a freshman majoring in engineering, is one of many Iowa State students with a dietary restriction. Celiac disease prevents Aird from consuming products containing or having been in contact with gluten. In her case, she is almost entirely restricted to eating in the Special Diet Kitchen, which ensures that all its food items are free from gluten, peanuts and tree nuts.

“So far [the Special Diet Kitchen] has been great for me and a really big relief,” Aird said. “That was one of my main concerns coming to college, was, ‘how am I going to eat?’”

After registering through the ISU Dining website, the Special Diet Kitchen is able to meet the needs of students requiring specific dietary accommodations. Although the 26 dining centers, cafes and markets found across campus serve some allergy-friendly food options, the Special Diet Kitchen takes extra precautions to ensure the prevention of cross-contact between ingredients.

The Special Diet Kitchen also provides students with at least one option that is free of the top eight allergens: wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish and eggs.

“We do our best to try to find those options that are suitable for as many people as we can,” Rebecca Harken, ISU Dining dietitian, said. “Going out to those main dining locations, we might still have some of those options available, but it’s just going to be more prevalent there in the Special Diet Kitchen.”

After working as a dietitian for just over three years, Harken began serving students through ISU Dining in July. A large part of her role revolves around meeting with students to help them navigate Iowa State’s dining centers with their dietary restrictions. Harken encourages students to find the online menus that can be accessed through ISU Dining’s website or the MyState app.

“We can look at the menus for each of our dining locations,and we can filter out for certain allergens or dietary preferences,” Harken said. “That way, students will know before even going into a dining center what their options are, so that can take some of the stress off.”

After dealing with sensitivities to some foods, Belinda Brain, a junior majoring in horticulture, began an elimination diet to discover what types of products she could not consume. Currently, Brain cannot eat eggs, dairy, gluten, soy or anything on the fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols (FODMAP) list, as those foods can be difficult for some people to digest.

Occasionally, Brain will go to Seasons Marketplace instead of the Special Diet Kitchen, as that is the dining center closest to Buchanan Hall, where she lives. However, she is often faced with the challenge of finding suitable meal options in dining halls outside of the Special Diet Kitchen.

“It’s pretty limited when I have to go to those other places,” Brain said. “They usually recommend to us, politely, that we go to [Union Drive Community Center].”

Even though getting to the Special Diet Kitchen can be difficult for some students, ISU Dining does assist individuals with certain needs to receive housing accommodations. For example, Aird received a housing accommodation that allowed her to live in Helser Hall, conveniently located near the Union Drive Community Center.

Despite any challenges that arise due to her restricted diet, Brain is thankful for the resources Iowa State offers its students.

“I don’t think a lot of people know that [the Special Diet Kitchen] is even a thing or how much it means to all of us who really need that,” Brain said. “I’d like people to know how awesome the cooks are there, who always know our names and care about whether we have enough to eat that night.”

When it came to deciding where to continue her education, dining was an important factor for Aird. She was impressed by the opportunities ISU made available to its students with dietary restrictions.

“Having the Special Diet Kitchen at a school that’s as big as Iowa State…shows that all schools can do it, and that size is no excuse,” Aird said. “I hope that more schools start to implement it, because there’s plenty of people with my same situation that really could use it.”

After picking up her meal from the Special Diet Kitchen, Aird can now join her friends in the main dining space, enjoying good company and, ultimately, dining safely.