College and Cross-Contact: Navigating Food Allergy On Campus

in College Corner
Published: January 19, 2016
hannahHannah Lank

When I moved nearly 1,300 miles from home to begin studying at university, I arrived prepared to have to speak up often about my allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, but I soon discovered that wasn’t my only challenge. I’m attending the University of Toronto, and it turned out my residence was having issues with a bed bug outbreak. And guess whose room got them?

So there I was, far from where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and having to take charge and make sure the university housing administration took care of the problem. What I quickly learned is this: Just living on your own for the first time can be a challenge, leaving aside the issue of managing food allergies on your own.

In a few short months after moving to this city of almost four million people, I’ve gained about as many “street smarts” as I have “book smarts”. (And by the way, my residence room is now bed bug-free, thank goodness.)

Because of my food allergies, advocating for my own needs and making sure they are taken care of is actually something I’ve been doing on a daily basis living and going to school at the University of Toronto. Unlike in high school, people here seem to often forget that I have deadly allergies, or perhaps they don’t completely understand the very concept of food allergies.

A few weeks ago, I took the subway with a couple of friends to an artisan market. A handmade chocolatier was giving out samples that looked amazing – from afar anyways. I knew I couldn’t eat them, because of the hazelnuts. “I think you can try the fruit one,” one friend piped up, trying to sound helpful. Immediately I thought, yes, I know there aren’t actually any physical nuts visible in the chocolate, but that’s not the problem: It’s cross-contamination of foods that worries me the most. But I didn’t say any of that.

“It’s OK, I’ll pass,” I replied to her. Sometimes, it’s easier not to get into the details.

But other times, I feel it’s important to speak up – often about those very same details.

“Actually, I can’t go to Chinatown to eat,” I said on another social occasion, “because I’m worried about cross-contamination.” Where to go for dinner is a common question for a student living in a city. But we’re in Toronto, so there are many restaurants to choose from, and the ones I can’t eat at are only a small fraction of the ones where I can.

What I find to be the most challenging so far about being on my own is that I have so much authority. It’s up to me to make decisions for myself – I can’t call my parents every time I’m faced with a decision. So it’s up to me now to assess individual risks, and to decide which ones are relatively safe, and which ones I need to avoid entirely.

Fro Yo ToppingsWhen it comes to managing cross-contact risks, places like frozen yogurt bars can be minefields. Photo: Thinkstock

One of the favorite late-night treats for my friends and I is frozen yogurt, just a 5-minute walk from our residence. Every time I go with my friends, I make sure to ask the owner which flavors are safe for me, and if I can’t ask the owner or manager, and there are no flavors I’ve had before, I’ll just pass. I’m not such a huge lover of fro-yo that it’s worth an allergic reaction. And I always pass on the toppings section, which – apparently – is pretty much the main draw for most people to fro-yo bars these days.

“No toppings?” my friends say to me, every single time we go. Yes, I know some of the toppings are safe, but I have to decide whether or not getting any toppings is a high or low risk, and then decide whether or not I want to take that risk. I consider the fro-yo itself to be low risk for me (since I don’t have a dairy allergy), but the toppings are a pretty high risk, because of their close proximity to each other, not having any labels, and the very likely chance of cross-contamination. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take. “No, I can’t,” I respond, and patiently explain to them again about cross-contamination (which some people call cross-contact), and its dangers for me. Eventually they’ll get it, right?

I think the concept of cross-contamination is the hardest for people to understand when it comes to food allergies, but it’s the most important to me because of the heightened hidden risks that come with it. But I also think there’s always a chance of cross-contamination when you eat out anywhere, and it’s important to evaluate the risks you’re taking, and stick to choosing low ones where necessary and avoiding high risk situations at all costs. Of course, a low risk situation is made even less risky by carrying two auto-injectors with you at all times, which I do.

At the same time, living life requires you to get out and explore, and part of the reason I chose a large city as my place of study is to experience the diverse culture of a metropolis. I’m not going to let my food allergies hold me back. I’ll keep reinforcing information about allergies to my friends and peers, and I’ll keep exploring. But by managing risks well, my food allergies won’t define me as a person, and I’m gaining invaluable experience along the way at learning how to stay safe.