Let’s Go to College with Food Allergies
The college search was in full swing in the beginning of my senior year. It was the fall of 2005, the War in Iraq was on, Bush was leaving office, Barack Obama was campaigning hard to enter office, and I had just finished my college essay.
Yes, it was a sweet and simpler time, and I was in the prime of my life. It was also at this time I learned a great lesson on how to choose a college when you have life threatening food allergies and anaphylaxis.
As you read on, you can expect everything you have ever experienced in the way of interactions between institutions and human beings because my “food alergic, anaphylactic, epi-pen ridden” tale covers it all.
The first thing the food allergic student must do in selecting a college is talk to whomever seems in charge of receiving inquiries about student life at the time of your visit or first phone call. When you bring up your food allergies oin a phone call, e-mail or campus visit, you will get one of three different responses.
One response will be that special diets and food allergies are handled by a specific department or person on campus, and then, hopefully, you will be given accurate contact information or directions as to where you should go from there.
Another response you may encounter is that the person who can help you and answer your questions is not available, but you should call or come back to campus at a latter date.
The third response you may encounter, which is the worst of all, is when the first person you speak with on campus about your food allergies tries to handle the question on their own without the proper knowledge to inform such adiscussion. It will be quickly evident to you when this happens that the person not only has no experience with food allergies, but they actually does not understand what your saying.
If this third and worst response happens to you, simply take a breath, be polite, but then head directly to the dining hall to see if anyone there can help you out. The dining hall on campuses are really the front lines where dietary restrictions are handled day to day. Sometimes they will institute a plan that is not shared with persons in other departments, such as Admissions.
However, if you are lucky enough to experience a great response from the first person you talk to about food allergies, such as my first example, it is then a “golden road” onto a great and helpful discussion as to how the college can plan out a way for you to eat safely as a student there.
I have found that the Chef and those in charge of managing the dining hall on campuses are the most informed and very helpful people who are familiar with food allergies, ingredients and safe practices that avoid cross contamination during the preparation and serving of meals on campus.
The dining hall Chefs and Managers are typically very interested in doing whatever can be done to help a student with a dietary restriction such as life threatening food allergies, celiac disease, or diabetes. You will pick up in conversations with dining hall Chefs and Managers taht they understand what you mean when you say, for example, that you will suffer anaphylaxis if an allergen is added to your meal.
One such informed and experienced person manages St.Anslem College’s dining hall. She completely understood how challenging it would be for me to determine what meals contain my allergens, and she described to me how I could work with her to create a plan for weekly menus.
It is when you meet such a person, who is educated and experienced that you will find the college search most enjoyable because your dietary restrictions are completely understood.
I suggest that you hold off on a detailed communication on your first meeting. Instead you should follow up with dining hall Chefs and Managers after you’ve narrowed down your college list considerably.
Once you have a reasonable amount of prospective colleges where you plan to apply, check back with the people in charge.
The way colleges introduce you to the dining hall will vary greatly. For instance when I visited Sienna College I was given a tour of the dining hall and alot of information was freely shared as to how they accommodate dietary restrictions. When I visited LeMoyne College I was received warmly by the manager of the dining hall and very encouraged about how their Chef works with food allergic students. On a visit to Holy Cross College the managers prepared an allergen free lunch for me, and took at least an hour with my parents and I describing how they provide safe meals for food allergic students. John Carroll University and Xavier University went above and beyond on the tours of their dining halls where I was served a delicious allergen free lunch and left very encouraged to learn how they would work with me to plan my meals as a student on a meal plan.
But, during the time I was searching for a college, I also learned to trust my intuition on the many campus visits. For example, when a dining hall tour or response from the manager made me feel uneasy, I simply crossed that school off my list.
Wherever you are seriously considering to attend college, it is important to make contact and visit the dining hall, eat a meal there, and ask about their experience and methods for accommodaton of food allergies.
Upon acceptance you can address your concerns once again with the Chef and Managers. Visit the school on accepted students day. Call ahead and ask that allergen free meals be available to you. Make an appointment to meet with whomever it is on campus, such as the Office of Disabilities, who can advocate for your needs as a student, and arrange for a meeting with the Resident Hall Manager to see what the response would be if you had a reaction on campus.
By doing all of this work, the colleges where you will be accommodated best will show themselves to you.
In my search I found colleges are more than willing to listen and understand what you need in accommodations and planning for life on campus with food allergies. If they are not responsive, however, don’t go there because it really isn’t worth the risk.
Wherever you attend college, if you have serious food allergies, it will be your responsibility to communicate to the dining hall on a regular basis so you can plan for allergen free meals. Be prepared for a reaction, know how to save yourself with your medicine, stay well, and eat safe.