The Food Allergy College Experience
Managing food allergies in college is totally doable. By speaking up about your specific needs and working together with your college, your accommodations should be met, so you can safely attend college. Here are our stories about managing various parts of the college experience.
By Cassie Jeng, Julia Gray and Alexa Wyszkowski
JG: At my school, I fill out a form with the registered dietitian at the beginning of each year that allows me to have access to personally prepared foods. I have a second form that I fill out every night before midnight that has me list my allergens and my meal orders for the upcoming day. My college uses CampusDish to post menus with ingredient lists about a week in advance, so I can choose what I want from there. Additionally, I can ask for substitutions, such as baking fries instead of frying them, or making personal pizza instead of a slice from the brick oven. My meals were prepared specially for me and I received them in a sealed and labeled box.
CJ: The first thing that I did when arriving on campus was talk to the head chefs and the campus dietitian. I met with all of them together to share information about my allergies and their severity regarding cross-contact. At first, I was ordering through the app they had available for students to order meals ahead of time and was entering my allergies as special instructions for the meals. However, there was still cross-contact that caused me to have a couple of allergic reactions. What ended up working out really well was working closely with the head chefs at each dining location. I would email the head chef of a given dining hall the night before with my lunch and dinner orders and the time I wanted them. They would prepare my meals personally in a special, dedicated area in the kitchen and then wrap my container, so nothing touched it before I came to pick it up!
JG: While in the dorm, I talked to my roommates before living with them. We established that I was okay with having a sealed bin with allergen-containing food that was eaten outside of the room. It was really helpful to have the discussion about food early in the summer so that I could ensure that the place stayed safe and healthy.
CJ: I made sure to have a really in-depth conversation with my roommate about my allergy. It helped that we are really good friends, but it can definitely be done with any respectful roommate! We talked about making sure to keep the space clean! She still sometimes brought things into the room that I couldn’t eat, but we had separate mini-fridges and she would keep whatever she was eating contained, as well as wash her hands afterward and not come to my half of the room.
JG: As a freshman, I decided that a standard double dorm would be the best fit for me. This way, I would only have to worry about the food brought in the room from one other person. Also, if I were to have a reaction, I would have someone who could help me get to student health or the hospital if needed. Also, living in a standard dorm meant that most food would be consumed in the dining hall and I would not have to worry as much about the food in the dorm room. By having a microwave and minifridge in my dorm, I could skip some meals at the dining hall and make some quick food for myself. My dorm building also had a kitchen, but I never used the pans or cookie sheets that you could borrow from the RAs, and I ended up asking my mom for a cookie sheet for Christmas that year so I could bake things in the shared kitchen confidently.
JG: Next year, I am living in an apartment with 4 friends. To keep things controlled, I have separate cookware that is for allergy-safe foods only. One cabinet has all of my containers, pots, and pans (which I purchased in teal for food allergy awareness and to reduce confusion). No foods with my allergens can be eaten in the living room since it is carpeted and crumbs could easily nest in the carpet or on the couch. Anything not allergen free is for eating in the kitchen, since it can be easily cleaned, or in my roommates’ bedrooms. We have a list of my allergens on the fridge and have a shared google doc with recipes that are safe for me so that no one has to wonder “well, what can she eat?”
AW: I have been commuting to college and continuing to live at home. This allows me to eat safe meals from home and drive my car to and from campus.
CJ: I would generally have things that I bought at the grocery store for breakfast or snacks. It’s really convenient to have a grocery store nearby to campus because I could go every couple of weeks to get things I know are safe. I didn’t have a kitchen in my room and wasn’t really comfortable using the sink/fridge/microwave/etc in the floor common room, but my parents and I bought cooking supplies that I kept in my room and could use. I had a cutting board, knife, cups, plates, utensils, a blender, and a mini hot pot.
JG: During my freshman year, I had to do a multi-week lab where we had to extract oil from various nuts and seeds to burn and measure how much energy they gave off. I spoke with my professors to create a solution and we restricted the materials used in the food processors. Additionally, I wore a face mask to prevent inhalation of any particles. I also did not participate in using the food processors that had powdered seeds in it.
AW: Some students may eat snacks during classes, as there weren’t always restrictions on food and drink in the classroom. If you are uncomfortable about snacks in the classroom, ask the professor to create a no food policy, move your seat somewhere where the other students aren’t eating, and/or bring wipes to sanitize the desk. Many professors share classrooms and it may be difficult to know the policies of every professor and how many students were in there before.
AW: I took a couple of culinary lab courses, and sometimes was exposed to my allergens in these courses. In the teaching kitchen, I was required to wear a uniform, and the chef pants had large enough pockets that I could keep both of my epi-pens on me while working with food. If I was in the dining room for an event, my epi-pens were stored on the desk of the lab coordinators in the teaching kitchen, so the lab coordinators and professor knew where it was.
There was one culinary lab day in particular during my first year that involved using nuts to make biscotti and french macarons. I asked the professor what I should do as I felt uncomfortable crushing nuts and using almond flour. The professor instructed me to stay home instead of coming to class. As I had “missed” the lab day, I was told to make the items at home using my own money and supplies in order to receive a grade. I had to find recipes that didn’t involve my allergens, and buy ingredients that were safe for me to use. I also had to take photos of the entire process and then bring the items in for the next class meeting for my classmates and professor to try. Being excluded from that lab day and having to use my own resources, was “easiest” for my professor and classmates to continue. However, I believe I should not have agreed to be left out of the assignment and required to complete it at home. This never happened again, but if it did, I think I would have a discussion with the professor about other alternatives and accommodations.
CJ: I only just finished my first year in college, which generally includes mostly larger lectures. There were some people that would eat snacks in class, so I just didn’t eat or touch many things in the lecture halls, just in case. I did have one lab, but because it was for physics, there was no food allowed in there anyway. I didn’t have a lot of issues with classes and my allergy! There was one time when a teacher of one of my smaller classes brought snacks in for class, but I had mentioned my allergy at the beginning of the semester, and because it was a smaller class, she remembered and reached out to me before choosing the snacks to bring. I would just recommend making sure professors are familiar with your allergies!
JG: I contacted the Health Services, Housing, and Dining Services departments to discuss my food allergies so that I could get accommodations in the dining hall.
AW: Before my first semester began, I registered my food allergies with accessibility services. By doing this I was given multiple copies of a document each semester that explained that I have food allergies and carry an epi-pen. This document also explained my rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I could provide this document to my professors, club advisors and even the school nurse, and have them sign off on receiving this information.
CJ: I worked closely with the campus dietitian and health services to register my allergy and make sure they were familiar with all the necessary precautions. I had some issues with allergic reactions, but the campus dietitian reached out to me after each reaction to work with me to prevent further reactions.
JG: One of the best decisions I made freshman year was going to the kitchen before our Catholic Campus Ministry’s “Free Dinner Friday”. By going to help out in the kitchen, I could see how everything was made and make future suggestions for brand choices (ie don’t use Pam cooking spray since it has coconut oil). As a member of the leadership team, I get to go shopping at the grocery store and have the ability to make decisions that allow me and other students with dietary restrictions to eat safely during CCM events.
AW: Getting involved in campus activities sometimes involves food. I always made sure to have extra snacks with me. When going on field trips I always made sure to have some friends with me that knew about my food allergies. There wasn’t any paperwork to fill out that would have informed school staff members on the trip about my food allergies.
CJ: I am involved in many things on campus, and while they are definitely reliant on food, I have found that in most cases, as long as you are committed to self-advocating and forming close, trusting bonds with those who you are hanging out with, most people are super willing to help keep you safe and make plenty of accommodations.