How to Navigate College with Food Allergies
"Going to college was the first time I felt like I truly needed to advocate for myself ALL the time. Suddenly, I did not have a parent to look out for me when I didn’t feel like reading labels."
-Justin Zaslavsky, Tufts University
College is a pivotal time in every young adult’s life, but for those living with food allergies, this milestone is the ultimate catalyst for self-advocacy. By this time, most parents of the food allergic deserve Ph.Ds in label reading, but this is when our children must take the reins. Spokin has pulled together the resources you need to make the transition easier for everyone.
In true Spokin spirit, we are connecting you with people in the know from coast to coast. We have created our first round of Campus Guides featuring current college students who are living on their own, navigating dining halls and sharing their best tips to manage college with food allergies.
Still working on applying? Spokin has 5 tips every parent and food allergic student needs to know. Plus, take a look at our checklist for your college visits.
Stanford: Howard Small
Allergies: Peanuts and Milk
Dining Halls: I think all the dining halls do a great job of being allergy friendly, especially for major allergens.
Class: 2017 | Major: Computer Science
Post Graduate Plans: I have aspirations of being a Software Engineer working with artificial intelligence/machine learning technology.
Howard's Top Picks On Campus
Sliderbar Cafe: My personal favorite restaurant on University Ave. It doesn't seem like they would, but they have a diverse menu that can feed anybody! | 📄 Sliderbar Cafe's Menu
LYFE Kitchen: Super healthy food, great customer service, and everything special on the menu is labeled with a Gluten-Free, Vegan, or Contains-Nuts icon! | 📄 LYFE Kitchen's Menu
CREAM Palo Alto: Delicious ice cream for every and anyone! They have nut, dairy, and even gluten free options! | 📄 CREAM Palo Alto's Menu
5 Steps to Find a Food Allergy Friendly School
Debbie Kanter and Amy Herzog of North Shore College Consulting are uniquely qualified to share their expertise on finding colleges for students with food allergies. They have helped many clients with food allergies and are undeniable authorities, and both are parents of food allergic children.
The Basics: Food allergies are considered a disability under the ADA, meaning food allergic students are guaranteed accommodations at publicly-funded and most private schools.
Beyond the Basics: Schools are required to make some minimum accommodations, but you can also seek options such as living in a dorm that has a food allergy friendly dining hall.
Where to start? A great place to look is in the Student Life or Student Experience section of a school's website. Here you will find details about housing and dining, student resources, and health and safety services on campus. Another great resource is this list of schools participating in the FARE College Food Allergy Program.
2. Disability Services
Disability services is your first point of contact. Disability services will help facilitate living and dining around your allergies as well as connect you with a registered dietician if the school has one.
Ask about getting a 504 Plan (a written strategy that provides a food allergic student with special food allowances, emergency action plans, stop-the-clock testing, etc.) and find out what accommodations are currently in place for food allergic students.
Be sure to have the right documentation. Come prepared with a current note from a doctor about the student's food allergy, any potential for a severe or life-threatening reaction, as well as a list of specific allergens. The documentation should be from within the last two years.
3. Dining Services
You eat here every day — you need to feel safe. Introduce yourself to the person in charge of dining services (director, manager, head of dining) or the school's registered dietitian.
Ask where to find allergy-free options. Some schools like Stanford University, Wellesley College and Kent State have designated allergen-free dining halls (allergens vary).
Ask to meet the chefs and understand how and where allergy-free options are stored and prepared. Building a strong relationship with the head chef is the best way to get a variety of allergy-free meals.
During a campus visit, be sure to visit dining halls to check if allergens are clearly labeled (and that the food tastes good!).
If the dining halls are unable to meet your specific needs, explore if opting out of meal plans is possible since they are a significant expense — note, this is not common.
"The school nutritionist granted me access to a pantry exclusively for nut-allergic individuals that had a 'safe' panini press as well as other 'safe' food items; all I had to do was ask."
-Justin Z., Tufts University
4. Residential Services
Living on your own for the first time means more independence, but less control than you might have had at home. Roommates are synonymous with college life. That is a huge factor that you can't control. Tell your roommates and RA about your allergies, share emergency action plans, and educate them on how to use an EpiPen or auto-injector.
Know your living options and the location in relation to campus dining. Look for dorms that are closer to allergy-friendly dining options.
Call the Office of Residential Life (available on most school websites) to see if the following accommodations are allowed or available:
- Personal microwaves and refrigerators in the room
- Single rooms
- A room with another student with the same allergy
- Personal storage
- An allergy-free community kitchen
"Do not be afraid to talk in depth about your allergies with your new roommate(s). They need to know how to use an EpiPen and the importance of keeping your allergen out of the room."
-Emily Hall, University of Central Arkansas
5. Day to Day
Self-advocacy skills are crucial as a food allergic student. Here are some tips to make it easier:
Educate your friends. Let them know about your food allergies and what they can do to help in case of an emergency, including training them to use an EpiPen or an auto-injector. You can also ask them to remind you to bring your EpiPen.
Tell your professors. Let them know about your allergy — they are the most likely person to be in the classroom every day.
Acknowledge and plan for potentially higher risk situations. Alcohol can be part of the college social scene, and inhibitions go down when you partake in drinking. Make sure the group you go out with is aware of your allergies and the signs that you’re having a reaction.