– Start the college search early, since more time and effort are required when reviewing colleges for both programs and allergy-friendly policies. “I encourage parents to start looking at campuses when the students are juniors,” says Kathy Whiteside, a dietitian at the University of Michigan.
– As a first step, check the dining sections of the colleges’ websites. Often there will be a page that talks about food allergies and gives contact information for the food services manager or dietitian – a good sign.
– We recommend visiting potential institutions before selecting the student’s university. Arrange to meet with the disabilities office plus the dietitian and/or food services director. Ask if it’s possible to have a meal at the same time – this way allergy practices can be seen in action.
– Once the student is accepted, attorney Tess O’Brien-Heinzen specifically recommends contacting the disabilities office. Send the documentation of the medical condition and request a meeting to discuss accommodations.
– Ask questions, and lots of them: how much training does staff receive on food allergies or the gluten-free diet and avoiding cross-contamination? Is ingredient and allergen information readily available in the dining hall? Is there a dedicated area in the kitchen for allergy orders, complete with separate utensils? Are customized meals available?
– Check for online menus: on many university websites, students can look up menus by dining hall and date, and tick boxes to filter out dishes containing their allergens. Such tools allow students to find out options before setting foot in the dining hall – or even before applying to the college. (Students should still double-check ingredients when ordering in person.)
– Pose questions on housing: Are rooms with kitchens available? Can a student bring or rent a microwave or mini-fridge? Requesting a single room may be best to avoid a roommate who doesn’t ‘get it’.
On Campus Checklist
– Once on campus, it is essential to speak up – whether it’s to confirm ingredients or ask if a dining staff member has changed gloves. “The best thing I learned is to be proactive and to advocate for yourself,” says peanut-allergic student Zac Chelini.
– Remain vigilant and carry your auto-injectors at all times. Inform your roommates, friends and/or resident advisor of your allergies. Wear emergency medical identification.
– When in doubt, don’t do it: don’t eat any food unless you are certain it was prepared safely. If unsure, don’t be afraid to ask!
– See if there is a food allergy or celiac club on campus to join. If one doesn’t already exist, consider forming one: it’s a great way to meet people in the same situation.
– As a parent, don’t expect a college to keep you in the loop. Colleges will not give out any medical information, citing privacy concerns, since your student is now considered an adult.
– Do check in with your student to make sure campus food approaches are working out. If there are potential risks, urge your young adult to discuss these soonest with the dietitian or food services staff. They need to be made aware.
The Good and the Bad of the College Experience with Food Allergies
About the U.S. Colleges Directory: Comparing Food Allergy & Gluten-Free Policies
Next: Canadian Universities Checklist