Southern Oregon University’s 25,000-foot dining commons known as The Hawk was a state-of-the-art complex when it first opened in September of 2013.

To those whose food preferences are governed by allergen restrictions as well as taste, however, it was far from perfect. But now that SOU has outfitted The Hawk with a nest — literally called The Nest — for the school’s allergen conscious students, it’s pretty close.

The Nest, a small, approximately 15-foot by 30-foot pantry that opened Feb. 26, is located just off the main south-side entrance to The Hawk, which is located between Shasta and McLaughlin residence halls off Wightman Street and also houses six meal stations, a large prep kitchen and a convenience store.

“We do a really good job of labeling our food, but there’s always a small population that have specific dietary restrictions, so this pantry was developed to focus on that and be able to offer them a good dining experience,” said Katie Bergantino, the marketing manager of SOU dining. “The idea kind of evolved in fall term and with that process, when you’re looking at allergen-focused pantries, there’s a lot of education and research that needs to go into them because there are very specific foods, the way you manage the facility, the way you manage the products that go in there.”

In order to use The Nest, Bergantino explained, students must go through SOU’s disability resource center. They fill out an accommodation request form then, if approved, will meet with food service director Mary Sossaman and a licensed dietitian. Sossaman will explain the food options, introduce students to the space and explain its setup.

Only students who have been approved can gain access to The Nest, and those who are approved are not allowed to bring in any outside food.

“They may not be allergic to something,” Bergantino said, “but somebody else who uses The Nest may be.”

The Nest is equipped with a refrigerator, a freezer, a microwave, a Panini press, a toaster and a waffle-maker. It’s also stocked with dry storage — food — supplied by SOU, including products that are soy free, dairy free, gluten free and nut free. Those who use The Nest are required to wear gloves while inside in order to prevent cross-contamination.

Students who qualify pay for meals from The Nest the same way they pay for any meals in one of SOU’s four food spots — by using their meal swipe. The meal rate is identical to what other students pay, Bergantino said.

As of Wednesday, Bergantino said, 11 students had signed up to use The Nest. The school is trying to get the word out using signage, and she expects it to become more popular next fall.

The Nest is the brainchild of Sossaman, who according to the SOU student newspaper, The Siskiyou, has an anaphylactic reaction to shellfish and created allergen-focused stations at four other universities before arriving at SOU seven months ago.

“It makes it really difficult for students to dine when they have certain intolerances and I’ve created The Nest to make it much easier for them,” Sossaman told The Siskiyou. “It’s always one of those things that I look at when I’m at dining facilities. People with allergens may not make up a large population but they still need to be included.”

Bergantino said she’s received positive feedback since The Nest opened. One of the first students to sign up even started applauding when they learned of the service.

“When I heard that from one of our managers down at The Hawk, I was like, ‘That’s so awesome,’” Bergantino said. “You put in all this work and you never know how things are going to go and it’s really kind of great to see that for our student community it just makes it that much easier.”

Matt Hatfield, a cashier at The Hawk who helped re-stock The Nest Thursday, believes it’s already making a big difference on campus.

“To some, allergens aren’t something that affects us or even comes into our daily lives at all,” he said. “To the students at SOU involved with The Nest it has become a life-altering change for them.

"Listening to the students who use The Nest," Hatfield continued, "it became clear that the minimal food options that work within their dietary restrictions, combined with the daily stresses of being a student, were causing issues in their everyday lives. To those that walk past The Nest, it may seem insignificant, but for those who use The Nest it’s changed everything.”

Reach reporter Joe Zavala at jzavala@dailytidings.com.