Dining 101: Managing Food Allergies at College

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As the summer winds down, a fresh crispness lingers in the air. Fall is right around the corner. This also means students are getting ready to head off to college.

Students face many new adjustments and responsibilities when they start school such as sharing a small space with a roommate they barely know and balancing difficult, fast-paced coursework.

But on top of the typical responsibilities of an incoming freshman, students with food allergies must also take on the responsibility of caring for their food allergies to keep themselves safe while eating and living on campus.

The U.S. Department of Education projects that nearly 3 million incoming college freshmen will begin school across the country this fall. Given that around four percent of the adult population suffers from food allergies, there may be more than 100,000 incoming freshmen students with food allergies to manage.college students eating pizza

Lindsay Haas; MPH, RD, culinary and nutrition support specialist at the University of Michigan, and Gina Forster; MS, RD, assistant director of nutrition at The Ohio State University, are both preparing to take on the challenge of helping incoming students manage their food allergies on campus.

We spoke with the experts to learn what students can do to be more efficient in managing their allergies on campus for the first time. Here is what they had to say.

“Managing food allergies at college should start early, as soon as you start the application process,” suggests Haas.

Every student needs to have a plan and keep a few items in their backpack that can help in an emergency. Here are few items that every plan should include:

  • Medication: Accidents happen quickly and without warning.  Having proper medication available during a reaction can make a difference. It’s equally important that you or someone around you know how to administer the medication.
  • 911 or Emergency Contact Information: In case of emergency, dial 911. University personnel, family or other emergency contacts should be included as part of your plan. 
  • A Campus Contact: In case of an emergency, it is important that someone on campus knows you and about your food allergy. Consider your close friends, your Resident Advisor, or even your new roommate as potential campus contacts. You should inform your campus contact as soon as you move to campus, if not before.
  • Campus Nutrition Expert: You also need to determine who the food safety and nutrition support experts are on your campus. All colleges have different resources, but this could be someone in your school’s dining services, disability services, health services or nutrition services.

Once you find out who the food safety and nutrition support contact is at your college, set up a meeting and start asking questions. Students with food allergies should ask about specific tables or food stations that may or may not be considered allergen friendly. In the dining facilities you should inquire about the ingredients, how cross contact is managed, and how and when meals are ordered and prepared. It is also important to read and re-read labels of the packaged foods you buy and eat. 

Lindsay, who oversees 10,000 recipes with over 5,000 ingredients concurs.

“These questions are just as important as reading the labels on packaged foods,” Lindsay said.

Some colleges use web site databases or signs in the dining halls to warn students about potential allergens. However, not all campuses have the nutrition information as readily available in the dining halls. In such cases, it’s even more important to speak up. 

Forster, who directs meals for nearly 30 dining halls on OSU’s campus, suggests students be vocal.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” Forster said. “If something looks wrong or isn’t quite right, just ask.” students getting food in a cafeteria

Students, especially first years, may be concerned about holding up the line or sticking out from their peers by sharing information about their allergy. These types of concerns can be better managed by being proactive and preparing for your campus dining experience in advance.

“Take advantage of knowing and learning about your new [university] environment,” Forster suggests.   

Practice asking the right questions with the food safety and nutrition experts on campus to know what to do when something’s not exactly right. Use the summer before you move to campus to visit various restaurants around town and practice ordering a meal. This will get you comfortable managing your allergy independently. 

Now that you’re packed and know what to do once you get to campus, don’t forget your plan. Select a Campus Contact, talk with the food safety and nutrition support expert, and get out there and practice ordering food. Have a great semester!

Additional Resources:

Managing Food Allergies at College (Food Allergy Research and Education) 

This post was written by Alison Webster, dietetic intern at Virginia Tech.