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Food Allergies: Finding the Right School or College

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak with a local food allergy support group about my experiences living with multiple food allergies as an adult. Since I work at a local college, I was asked to speak about two things: how to prepare for going to school or college as an adult with food allergies and what it’s like in a workplace setting for someone with food allergies.

This post will discuss what I’ve learned related to the college experience, and my next post will be about working with food allergies.

 Finding a College or School

Do Your Homework

  • The best time to research a school is before you apply or get excited about attending that particular school.
  • View the school’s website for information related to food allergies, but don’t get discouraged if you do not find anything. This just means you need to ask more questions.
  • Research the student activities department (sometimes student affairs, student government, etc.) and find out if there are student organizations related to food allergies or special dietary restrictions. You may even be able to contact the organization’s advisor or find some students you can contact. Ask how they handle their food allergies on campus and if they have had any issues.
  • Are there enough food/specialty stores in the school’s community to meet your dietary needs? For instance, if the nearest grocery store is 30 minutes away, you may need to reconsider the school. You may not have time (or perhaps transportation) for lengthy commutes to the store.

What Accommodations Do You Need?

  • What are your living arrangements? Commuting vs. living on campus requires very different accommodations.
  • What about food? Are you bringing your own or does the school need to provide?
  • What kinds of accommodations do you need for food served in a classroom or allergic materials used for group projects?
  • Consider other needs such as cleaning supplies used in dorms, toiletries you could be allergic to, and laundry areas using unknown detergent.

Once you have determined what your needs are, you should:

Reach Out To The School

  • Contact the disability services department to discuss.
  • First, ask an open-ended question about how they handle food allergies and see how they respond. Do they immediately know their policies related to food allergies?
  • How many students do they have on campus with food allergies?
  • Can they provide you with safe living arrangements?
  • What happens if a roommate is not cooperative? How quickly is the issue resolved?
  • If you cook for yourself, can they provide a place for you to safely store/heat your food?
  • Contact the food service provider, preferably with disability services included in the conversation.
  • How many students do they serve with food allergies?
  • Do they have allergen menus updated daily?
  • How confident are they that their food suppliers follow good food labeling practices?
  • What steps do they take to avoid cross contact?
  • Many food service providers have campus nutritionists. However, keep in mind that nutritionists may or may not be trained in food allergies. However, if they are not formally trained in food allergies, they may still have extensive experience working with the food allergic or even have food allergies/intolerances themselves.

Other Items to Consider

  • If you are living in an apartment, choose your roommates carefully and look for ways to secure your food.
  • Some apartments even offer bedroom doors with locking systems so that you can safely store your food and belongings.
  • Do you need to rent two bedrooms in a multi-bedroom apartment? (You could use one for your bedroom and one for a food storage area as approved by the apartment complex.)
  • Once you accept an admissions offer, immediately connect with any student organizations that you found in your research that are related to food allergies or dietary restrictions. It’s important to expand your search and make sure that you reach out to any organizations that relate to dietary restrictions. Finding students who are already navigating campus successfully with food allergies or dietary restrictions will be a big help to you and may also help you make friends much more quickly.

What is it like to go to college with a food allergy and what should I know before attending?

  • We know that 1 in 13 children has food allergies, but in my experience, food allergies have already become very common in college.
  • You will unfortunately find fellow students who have food allergies and do not take them seriously or are too embarrassed to tell anyone. Do not let this sway you from taking your own health seriously. You will likely find that the students that are not taking their food allergies seriously are also dealing with more health issues. They are also putting themselves at risk for life-threatening reactions.
  • Be the absolute best student you can be. I was so sick during my high school and college years and missed tons of class, but I still graduated at the top of my class. My professors knew that I was dedicated, worked hard, and they in turn were willing to work with me.
  • Be confident when you talk about your food allergies. There is no need to feel embarrassed, and confidence will help others connect with you and assist you in making lasting friends.
  • You may find that everyone is fascinated by your food allergies and wants to ask lots of questions. You can be a good ambassador for food allergies, so don’t be intimidated or aggravated by all the questions. This is your chance to educate by telling your story.
  • You may find that when you tell people that you have food allergies, they may also have food allergies and haven’t said anything until now. This has definitely been the case for me with some of my own students.
  • It’s important for you to tell your close friends (and also school administrators) that you have food allergies. Not only does it help you find the right kinds of friends, but it’s for your safety as well. They can help you if you get into a situation where you are reacting and also watch for others that are not as respectful of your food allergies.
  • Never, ever compromise your health for anyone. Know your boundaries and ask for additional needs in a spirit of cooperation. Asking for help in a respectful way goes much further than asking in an angry or militant way.

Cooking Tips For Supplying Your Own Meals

  • Plan your meals efficiently
  • Plan your meals at least a week in advance according to your class schedule.
  • Pick meals that will allow you to cook once and eat twice.
  • Cook in batches.
  • Invest in a small chest freezer.
  • What is your back-up plan if you forget your lunch?
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