Having a food allergy in college can be frustrating and scary, especially when you share your dining facilities with so many students. Any food allergy—to fish, shellfish, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, wheat, or something else—can affect your college experience, as can lactose or gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Fortunately, your college, your dining center’s staff, your peers, and your roommates want to help, but you need to be direct about your needs.
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Is it possible to develop a food allergy during college?
You can develop food allergies, gluten sensitivity, or celiac disease at any time, sometimes even to foods that you eat often. Some people are born with their allergies and remember nothing else; others develop allergies in college or much later. If you think you are developing a food intolerance, see a doctor as soon as possible and start a food diary, which can help you track where your symptoms originate. You may also have access to a campus nutritionist who can help you make dietary changes and eat well on campus.
How might my food allergy affect me during college?
If you already have a food allergy, it will follow you to college. That means that your lifestyle change is going to be that much harder. It’s difficult to manage a food allergy when your schedule, living situation, and dining facilities all change at once.
- Physically: If you’ve had a food allergy for a while, you probably know how it affects your body. For those who are just developing allergies, Food Allergy Research and Education says that physical symptoms are diverse. They can include, but are not limited to, any of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Congestion or runny nose
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Chest pain
- Getting behind on schoolwork
- Missing class
- Having to request extensions
- Missing out on social engagements
- Living alone or off campus to best manage the allergy
- Opting out of a meal plan or not frequenting the dining hall
- Fear of exposure or a recurrence
- Emotional trauma from past episodes
- Feeling overwhelmed
How do I find a college where I can feel safe about my food allergies?
If you have already been diagnosed with a food allergy, sensitivity, or celiac disease, you may be nervous about heading to college. Get the peace of mind you need by asking your college important questions before you arrive on campus:
- Where is the closest hospital or clinic? If there is an emergency, how long will it take to access the urgent care you need?
- Is the campus health center prepared to deal with your intolerance? Does the staff know how to use an EpiPen? Is there a nutritionist on staff who is available for consultations?
- Are on-campus dining facilities friendly to students with intolerances?
- Who is the food service director or campus dietician? What is that person’s contact information? Will they advocate for your dining needs?
- Is there a chef who prepares special orders?
- How is cross-contamination prevented? Will you have access to plates and silverware that have never been contaminated by your allergen? Is there a special station for students with intolerances where you can prepare your food?
- Is there someone on staff in the dining center who knows how to administer an EpiPen?
- Are there other students on campus dealing with similar issues? Can you be put in touch?
- Can your residential assistant be trained in using your EpiPen?
What can I do to manage my food allergies once I arrive on campus?
- Find a nearby doctor. You may have a wonderful doctor back in your hometown, but if you moved across the country for college, you may need to make an appointment with your local doctor. Check with your insurance to find a nearby provider or specialist in your network.
- Bring your EpiPen or medication to campus. Keep it on you at all times. Keep another in your room. Show your roommate where you keep it and instruct him or her in how to use it.
- Tell your friends, roommates, professors, and dining partners about your allergy. You aren’t inconveniencing them; your friends are there for support. They should know about your allergy and how to recognize it. They may forget and offer you a taste of your allergen every now and then; remind them as often as necessary about your intolerance.
- Never compromise with your needs. Be direct and firm about what you need and what you must avoid. At the same time, be polite. Many people are unfamiliar with food allergies. Advocate for yourself.
- Bring your own dishes. If your allergy is especially severe, you may be anxious about cross-contamination. If you live alone, this is easy. If you live with a roommate, ask for your own cabinet for silverware, dishes, and cookware. Write your name and food allergy on everything, including your food packages, to gently remind your roommates why you need your own. If you frequent the dining hall, it may have special plates that you can use. If not, ask the food services director if you can bring your own specifically for your intolerance. If your campus dining center uses white plates, it may allow you to bring brightly colored dishes, which it may offer to store for your use only.
- Ask to get off the meal plan. If you have a severe food allergy and the dining facilities on campus aren’t equipped to safely prepare your meals, you may be granted permission to get off the meal plan (if a meal plan is required at your school). Talk to someone in the Residential Life Office about your situation, bring proof of your allergy from your doctor, and explain what you want (e.g., to cook all your own meals, to stick to dining dollars for use at the campus coffee shop instead of prepaying for meals, to live off campus, etc.). Your school will work with you.
What campus resources are available?
Every school is different. Fortunately, most offer a number of resources for students with food allergies.
- Dean of Students: If your food allergy interferes with your studies or life on campus in any way (e.g., you have to miss class or request an extension), your dean can assist you, refer you to outside resources, and explain or confirm your situation to your professors.
- Campus health center: Depending on the size of your campus, the college health center may be staffed with doctors, nurses, or other medical professionals. If you need immediate relief from exposure to your allergen, staff at the campus health center may be able to administer an EpiPen or subdue your symptoms until an ambulance can arrive.
- Mental health center or counseling services: If your food allergy is affecting your emotional health, you may decide to turn to the mental health services at your college. Some campuses offer support groups for students with food allergies. If yours doesn’t, it may still offer support groups for students dealing with general physical health issues. You may also elect to meet with a counselor one-on-one.
- An on-campus nutritionist or dietician: Students who want to better manage new or existing food allergies may be able to meet with a campus nutritionist. Oftentimes, this individual can help decode your food diary and recommend certain diets to help you cope with the allergy.
- A food service director: Students with food allergies who participate in a campus meal plan can work directly with the food service director to explain their needs.
- Optional meal plans: If you live on campus, your school may require that you purchase a meal plan. The campus may be willing to make an exception for you, however, if you have a severe food allergy.
- Contaminate-free zones in the dining hall: If your dining hall does not currently offer an area where you can prepare a meal without worry, the food service director can help you create or reserve a contaminate-free station.
- Meal suggestions: Perhaps your dining hall offers few prepared meals that you can eat because of your allergy. If that is the case, the food service director can help make your menu suggestions into a reality.
- Residential Life Office: Many residential colleges have policies about who is allowed to live off campus (usually upperclassmen). The office might make an exception for you if dorm life would endanger you because of your food allergy. They also may make decisions about who can opt out of meal plans.
- Current students: Talking to a current student with a similar intolerance can help you recognize whether the school offers the appropriate amount of support for your needs.
Page last updated: 01/2018