(Anyone else remember that early 2000’s Nickelodeon show?!?)
Heading off to college is an exciting and nerve-wracking time for all new freshman, but it can be especially scary for food allergy sufferers and their families. As a recent graduate of The Ohio State University (where the literal mascot of the university is a personified tree nut), I wanted to share my best tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in college with severe food allergies.
1 – Contact Disability Services
Beginning in high school, I had a 504 plan that aided in the process of registering myself within the office of disability services. Having a 504 plan can legally require the university to exempt you from certain required policies such as purchasing a meal plan or living in university-sponsored housing. One of my biggest concerns when moving to Ohio State was finding a roommate who understood my allergies. Living in such close quarters, it was not safe nor realistic to have a roommate consuming my allergens in our joint space. Luckily, I was connected with another food allergy sufferer through mutual friends who became my roommate, but the office of student housing at Ohio State was notified of my necessary accommodations and was helpful throughout the housing process because of my 504 plan and affiliation with disability services.
Getting in contact with your university’s disability services office before you need them is really important. I had a situation in undergrad where the hallway in my dorm building was vandalized with peanut butter (who does that?!?) and disability services was able to advocate on my behalf to require the university to professionally clean the carpets and walls. Without this legal backup, I most likely would have spent the whole rest of the semester with peanut butter stains across the floor that led to my bathroom.
The Spokin app has a great article about 504 plans here – https://www.spokin.com/how-to-get-a-food-allergy-504-plan.
2 – Find A Meal Plan That Works
Ohio State’s dining services department did a phenomenal job of following specific allergy protocols and labeling procedures. Not only do they provide an allergy filter option on their website for all 30 campus dining locations, but each menu item is clearly labeled and coded according to specific dietary needs. For example –
- N = Contains Nuts
- D = Contains Dairy
- S = Contains Shellfish
- G = Gluten Free
- V = Vegetarian
- VG = Vegan
Here is a video produced by the Office of Student Life that gives an overview of the procedures and protocols that Ohio State’s Dining Services follows to ensure the safety of food allergy sufferers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=19&v=tkEKGcMjQzk.
My older brother Tyler, a graduate student at Michigan State University, also shares many of the same allergies as I do including peanuts, tree nuts, chickpeas and raw tomatoes. He similarly has had a great experience with the dining accommodations at MSU. His graduate dorm actually has its own allergy-friendly market in the downstairs lobby! The grab-and-go style facility is free of all of the top eight major allergens, and is a cross-contamination and sesame conscious kitchen. The culinary and dietitian team at Michigan State cited the inspiration for this new dining facility as being a result of the growing number of students reaching out about allergy concerns over the recent years.
However, not all university dining facilities will be as accommodating as Ohio State’s or Michigan State’s are. Therefore, I really suggest doing some research and checking into each school’s procedures and protocols before submitting your deposit. When I went on my college visits, I made sure to schedule a meeting with a university chef or nutritionist to discuss my allergies and see how that individual school handled them.
It is important to note that many colleges and universities require students to purchase a school-sponorsed meal plan through their dining services. As mentioned earlier, having a 504 plan and/or being registered with disability services can help exempt you from this requirement if the dining facilities are deemed unsafe.
3 – Practice Safe Drinking Habits
Because most students will become of legal drinking age while attending college, I find it important to note about the special precautions that food allergy sufferers need to be take when consuming alcohol.
Here are a few things to look out for…
- Amaretto, an Italian liqueur used in amaretto sours or coffee, is often flavored with almonds.
- Gin, a popular liquor in mixed drinks, is regularly distilled with juniper berries (pine).
- Beer, mostly made from barley, is not gluten free.
- Egg whites are often found in whiskey sours or used as foam garnishes.
- Walnut bitters are regularly used in old fashions.
- Strawberries, peaches, and apples are common fruit allergies whose flavors are often used as mixers or garnishes.
These are just a few examples of common allergens in alcohols and cocktails that you may run into. Especially in a loud or crowded space when your inhibitions may be low, it can be difficult to communicate with your bartender or server about your allergies. Double checking drinks at happy hour or at the bar is often overlooked by allergy sufferers who are otherwise usually very adamant about checking their food.
4 – Do Some Digging For Safe Restaurants
I consider myself a “foodie” and wanted to explore new restaurants in Columbus when getting to college, but I had no clue where to start.
Apps like Spokin (https://www.spokin.com/) or Allergy Eats (https://www.allergyeats.com) allow you to search allergy-friendly restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and ice cream parlors by city and state. Plug your new address into one of these useful apps and find some safe places for you to dine when you inevitably get sick of having campus food.
Happen to find an allergy-friendly place that isn’t listed on one of these sites? Do the allergy community a favor and leave a review on the app!
5 – Advocate For Yourself In Class
One of the most common issues that I ran into during my undergraduate years was other fellow students eating something I was allergic to next to me in a crowded lecture hall. College students are lazy, exhausted and stressed, so often times “lunch” is a granola bar during Psychology 101 class.
I have always joked with other food allergy friends about being hyper-vigilant in class, and quickly turning around in our chairs when we hear the crinkling of a food wrapper behind us. I found this problem to be particularly distracting and infringing on my learning, especially when I was more preoccupied with the snack bag of almonds to my right than with the professor lecturing in the front of the room.
Much like my experiences on airplanes, it is important to remember that speaking up and advocating for yourself is not selfish. You deserve to feel just as safe in class as everyone else does. If a simple “Hey, I’m super allergic. Do you mind saving that for later?” is what stands between you and earning a good grade in that course, then it is worth every word. Thankfully (but actually not so thankfully), the world has given me plenty of opportunities to practice this.
6 – Seek Out Food Allergy Clubs
Because food allergies are on the rise, you can find many allergy-friendly or related clubs springing up on college campuses across the nation. Having a community of food allergy sufferers that you can share dining hall recommendations, tips and other tricks off of each other that are specific to your university is a great resource to have when transitioning to college.
With 60,000+ students attending Ohio State, even though we did not have an allergy club on campus, I made significantly more connections with food allergy sufferers at school than I expected. All of these friendships proved to be really important in navigating my new surroundings in college.
Check out your school’s student involvement fair or office of student life to see which clubs and organizations they offer. Notice that your university doesn’t have an allergy club? Create one yourself!
7- Enjoy The Best Four Years Of Your Life!
Starting college is a fun and exciting time, and your time as a student will fly by – so enjoy it! Be smart, be safe, and remember to use these tips and tricks to make the most of your time in undergrad. Go bucks!