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When her son David Parkinson was a little boy with allergies to seven different foods, Susan Leavitt shuddered at the thought of him leaving home one day to go to university. The idea of a young man at risk for anaphylaxis eating mass-prepared food in a huge dining hall alongside hundreds of students seemed unfathomable.
“I hope he gets into NYU or Columbia, there’s no way he’s going to leave New York,” she recalls thinking. But as David grew up and learned to take responsibility for his allergies, both mother and son gained confidence. When he first entered university, Susan knew that her son could live on campus and manage his allergies – that is, provided the food services staff could be relied on to do their part.
As it turned out, could they ever. At the University of Delaware, David had the honor of having his meals prepared by the university’s executive chef of catering. The two would meet to go over the menu for the week ahead: what was being made, what David wanted, and how they could make it work for him. David could even call ahead and let the kitchen know when he would arrive. The chef was so mindful of David’s needs that he insisted the freshman promise to only eat food directly from the kitchen. One time, David broke that rule and was eating something from a self-serve area. A staff member came rushing over to scold: “Where did you get that!?”
Today, David Parkinson recalls, “I knew all the staff in the dining hall, and they would take care of whatever I needed.” While he had gained tolerance to some foods since childhood, his allergies to dairy, nuts, fish and shellfish persisted and were enough of a menu challenge to lead to the personal treatment. Most of the time, he would receive a safe version of what everyone else was eating, like a cheese-free quesadilla. But sometimes he’d be treated to a filet or other high-quality item, instead of the standard fare offered to other students.
“I knew I was getting better food, without people necessarily knowing,” says the graduate in economics and political science.
Over at Boston College, the historic Jesuit institution, Elizabeth Ogden enjoyed a similar, almost royal accommodation. “It was like having my own personal chef,” says the 25-year-old, who graduated with a major in sociology in December. Every Sunday, Ogden, who has to avoid gluten, dairy and eggs, would e-mail the chef to go over the next week’s menu. The college would also purchase specialty items and keep them in a separate area that she could access at any time. “I can honestly say that I ate better at Boston College than I now do, living with a full kitchen of my own,” she says.
An astounding one in 13 children and teens now has a food allergy, representing a new allergy generation that’s just starting to arrive at the ivy-covered doorsteps of universities. Diagnosis of celiac disease is also increasing, and with non-celiac gluten sensitivity recently recognized as affecting up to 6 percent of the population, many universities are heeding increasing requests for gluten-free fare. They are beginning to “get it” when it comes to food allergies and celiac disease.
However, not all colleges are on board yet, and not every student is going to be lucky enough to get the personal chef treatment. But knowledge about symptoms, kitchen staff training and allergy practices are improving, with a number of colleges establishing new allergy-friendly policies on campus.
“An important focus of our work is that the student with food allergies enjoys the dining experience here as much as any other student,” says Kathy Whiteside, a registered dietitian at the University of Michigan. At UMich, allergen information is posted and easily visible in all dining halls and retail eateries. Even better, this information is also available online and easily accessible under the university website’s dining section.
These online menus, now used by many colleges, allow students to check out allergy-friendly meals. While it’s still advisable to confirm ingredients in person with a staff member, a student strolling along to the dining hall can effortlessly open the daily menu on their cell phone, run a filter for their allergens, and view the food choices that will be safe, all within seconds. Today, technology is assisting the student with allergies; a decade ago, this would not have been possible.
Standing in his kitchen at Eastern Michigan University, decked out in his chef whites and hat, Chef Tom Murray is surrounded by a typical scene: industrial appliances humming, the smell of fresh cooking wafting through the air, staff busily chopping and preparing meals.
On one side of the kitchen, glints of purple catch the eye, a sharp contrast to the standard issue white and stainless steel color scheme. This is a dedicated allergy-aware station, and the color lavender signals that – a visual cue and constant reminder. There is cookware in this area with lavender on the handles, while cutting boards and plates are completely purple. The color scheme is part of the university’s food allergen and intolerance program, and only the designated allergy chef is allowed to work within the section. Meal orders are flagged with allergen labels that indicate both the student’s name and what each tray is free of (for instance, “no gluten”, “no dairy”, “no peanuts”). Murray’s lavender section includes everything needed to make safe meals, and rigorous attention is paid to avoiding cross-contamination.
In food services at universities, the use of lavender to denote allergies and gluten-free concerns is the growing trend. At Purdue University, dining court supervisor and nutritionist Carrie Anderson is working to implement a similar system, and has been a driving force behind the color concept at colleges.
A company had already come out with a special kit which contained a purple cutting board and a few utensils, but “we needed more than a knife and a spatula,” says Anderson, whose own teenage son has allergies to peanut and dairy. She explains that dining court food stations have differing needs: “Some need a pizza pan, some need a spatula, some need a baking dish, some need knives of different sizes. It’s not just at Purdue but in any station of any dining court.”
So Anderson partnered with Hubert Company, a major food services equipment provider, and hosted a conference for her dining staff peers, speaking about using purple utensils to improve allergy awareness in the kitchen. Today, Hubert sells full allergy and baking kits, and Anderson’s own allergy arsenal includes tongs, knives, a cart, thermometers, spatulas, whisks, pans and more: “Anything people could want is coated with lavender.”
Purdue’s Ford Dining Court serves 3,600 lunches and dinners a day, and Anderson and the team manage to include students who are allergic or gluten-free. There are gluten-free muffins, breads and pasta, plus staff can adjust marinade recipes to avoid ingredients like soy. An allergy profile for each student with special dietary needs is kept on hand for easy reference. For those living in residence, Anderson is always mindful that “this is their home”.
Some universities use one of the big dining services companies to provide meals for students. Fortunately, these companies are also becoming allergy- and gluten-aware, and getting on-board with trends such as food stations, which bring more variety to the student dining experience. Sodexo, one such company, earlier this year won an industry magazine award for its “Simple Servings” food station concept, in use at a few universities. This station boasts minimally processed foods free of gluten and seven of the top eight allergens (fish is in some recipes), and quickly became popular among students, even those without food allergies.
But for all the precautions, campus safety always begins during the university selection process. Families need to check out universities online and whether they offer any allergy and celiac accommodations. Find out if the institution has a disability office that oversees special needs issues, and contact them to find out the process of getting accommodated. Then try to meet (preferably in person) with the head of food services or staff dietitian. Kathy Egan, the registered dietitian at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, agrees this is the best process to follow: “It’s like an interview; the student can turn the table around and say, ‘I’m interviewing you now, how can you take care of my needs?’”
See also: College To-Do Checklist
Housing is, of course, the other vital consideration. Residence is sometimes required for the freshman year, and meal plans are often mandatory if staying in residence. Many colleges allow mini-fridges and microwaves in the dorm rooms, or have “apartment-style” residence units which have a kitchenette, or even a full kitchen. These apartment-style dorms tend to be reserved for upperclassmen, but some colleges will allow a freshman with a severe food allergy to stay in one as an accommodation.
Roommates are another issue. It may be best to request a single room, or ask to be placed with a friend. Housing forms usually have an area to request a roommate, and if friends request each other, they are more likely to be put together.
Even with the most accommodating system, though, with anaphylaxis, there is always some degree of risk. Take the case of Zac Chelini, a student at Gonzaga University in Washington with a severe peanut allergy.
Next: Chelini’s visit to the emergency room