Managing Food Allergies at College
For many of us, going to college is an important milestone. As a student heading off to college, this may be the first time you’re on your own – and fully responsible for managing your food allergy.
The good news is that a growing number of schools are taking steps to ensure that students with food allergies have a safe, successful college experience. While many schools have established food allergy management policies and programs, it’s important to keep in mind that food allergy policies and practices vary widely from school to school, so you'll need to do some research when considering where to apply. Here are some tips to help make your college years rewarding and safe.
If you're thinking about applying to a particular college, be sure to arrange a meeting or conversation with the food services director. Find out if you're required to live on campus and eat in the dining halls. What accommodations are made for people with food allergies? What steps are taken during food preparation to ensure that there is no cross-contact? Ask if the school has a MicroFridge rental program. This combination microwave, refrigerator and freezer can make it easier for you to store food safely and prepare your own meals.
Once you're at school, "set up a meeting with the dining room staff, including the wait staff, chefs, and food manager and explain the severity of your allergies," advises Brooke Jacobsen, a Colgate University graduate who is allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. "Soon after my arrival, most of the dining staff knew me, making the eating experience more enjoyable. If your schedule allows, go to the dining halls before or after the 'rush-hour traffic.' I've found that when the dining halls are less crowded, I can easily find the foods and supervisors I need to contact."
Be sure that the food service director has a copy of your emergency treatment plan. (You should also provide copies to the dorm staff and resident advisor, and make sure there's a copy in a prominent place in your dorm or apartment, so roommates can easily find it if an emergency occurs.)
"Familiarize yourself with the supermarkets and health food stores in the area," Brooke adds. "You may be surprised to find that local stores will special-order your food. For example, in my college town, the small organic shop in the village ordered my mixed berry soy yogurt whenever I asked. They were more than willing to carry specific foods and brands that I otherwise would not have been able to find in rural Hamilton, New York."
Learn about your housing options. Do you want to live in a dorm, or would you be more comfortable in an apartment that offers a full kitchen (either on campus or off)? Once at school, educate your roommates about food allergies and how to recognize an anaphylactic reaction. "To additionally protect yourself, I suggest explaining that you cannot share food," says Brooke. "It's too much of a risk for them to take a bite of your sandwich, a sip of your coffee, or a spoonful of your cereal. You never know what food remnants are in their mouths." If talking about your allergy makes you uncomfortable or you aren't quite sure how to broach the subject, ask for advice from your resident advisor or other trusted counselor.
Medical Care and Emergency Services
Consult the director of the campus health clinic to discuss their protocols and experience in treating allergic reactions. Be sure to learn the location of the nearest hospital. It's also a good idea to get in touch with the local EMS provider and ask if your contact information can be stored in its database.
The school’s Office of Disabilities staff also might be able to help you; some schools require that you file information about your food allergy with this office. Once at school, always wear emergency medical identification (e.g., bracelet, other jewelry), and be sure to carry three things at all times: your insurance card, your emergency treatment plan, and your medication.
As with so many other situations involving food allergies, planning and communication are key to getting the most out of your college years, academically and socially. But as thousands of food-allergic students can confirm, it's well worth the effort.
Food Allergy Training Guide for College and University Food Services >
Allergic Living article "Off to College – with Allergies"
College & Cook, an ezine, features general interest articles as well as features of interest to students with food allergies.