Good and the Bad of the College Experience with Food Allergies

in College Corner, Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: August 16, 2018

College students with food allergies share their experiences with dining halls, dorms and roommates.  

Heading off to university with food allergies requires plenty of preparation and planning for the first year to be successful. At Allergic Living, we sought out college students with at least a freshman year under their belts. We asked them to share first-hand experiences, from eating in the campus dining hall to educating roommates about keeping an allergy-friendly space.

To help current and future students, they offer strategies they’ve found to work for food allergies or celiac disease, share positive and tougher moments, and offer “best practice” tips to smooth the transition. Their experiences vary widely: some college students were fortunate to have campus dining services provide full ingredient listings for meals and dining halls free of certain allergens, but others needed to train, and retrain, to prevent allergen exposures.

Yet all the students speak of enjoying the college experience. A common theme was that food allergies should not hold you back from anything – including living in the dorm.

Advice of Students with Allergies

Cody Sklar

Attending: He is a junior at the University of Miami in Florida, majoring in business management.

Diet Issues: Cody, 20, has multiple allergies, which include peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, soy, wheat and gluten, fish, shellfish, lentils, mustard and sesame.

Campus Living: Cody’s choice of college was based upon academics, as well a desire to continue advocacy work he began in high school for food allergy awareness in Florida restaurants.

Proximity to his parents also affords him comfort. As for his former roommate, “I did not have any issues because I was extremely clear about the severity of my food allergies,” he says, and he asked to have no allergens in the room.

Tougher Moments: These were “the times I was juggling too many things and having to manage my food allergies at the same time.” He suffered an anaphylactic reaction before a midterm exam, after failing to notice the sunflower seeds he was eating carried a precautionary warning for contact with tree nuts and sesame.

For the first two months of school, Cody ate in the dining halls and continued to have minor reactions. “I took matters into my own hands,” he says. “I became my own chef,” cooking with a Crockpot in his dorm room. Until he could switch dorms and have his own kitchen, his mother also brought by food. Since he couldn’t use the required meal plan, UM did allow him an exemption.

Positive Experiences: His best experiences “have definitely been the football and basketball games at UM.” He has been reaction-free since cooking in his own kitchen. Plus, he’s learned that “this condition does not define me, but has formed my essence and taught me the virtue of compassion.”

‘Best Practice’ Advice: Cody tells those new to college, “there are two important things that I learned: the need to cook sufficiently and meal-prep for yourself, and to be outspoken about your food allergies.”

Elise Snoey

Attending: She is a sophomore at Smith College in Northampton, MA, an all-women’s school.

Diet Issues: Elise, 19, has allergies to peanuts and hazelnuts, and she is gluten intolerant.

Campus Living: When initially looking at colleges, Elise focused on which schools had her preferred major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. Once admitted, she began to factor in food allergy awareness. “Once I committed to Smith, the summer before first year, I had a call with the disability office,” in which she reviewed all the paperwork that would be needed for accommodations.

Elise lives in a dorm and eats at Dawes dining hall on campus, which is dedicated gluten-free, and also serves food that’s free of other top allergens if this is requested by a student. “The Dawes kitchen and dining hall are only accessible if you are registered with the disability office as being gluten intolerant or celiac,” says Elise. To prove you have one of these conditions, a doctor’s note is required to be submitted to the Office of Disability Services.

Tougher Moments: College students who use this special dining hall are only allowed one friend to join them at a meal. Elise finds this complicates social life, making it difficult to coordinate safe meals with friends. “This definitely limited any spontaneous food decisions,” she says. Another issue is that breakfast isn’t provided, however Elise has access to a community kitchen, and always brings her own sponge for clean up.

Positive Experiences: Elise had requested to room with someone else with food allergies. Her roommate turned out to have compatible food allergies and the two hit it off, making the living situation very positive in the first year. “Many of the friends I’ve made in college are very understanding of my allergies, and ask great questions if they want to know more,” Elise says.

Additionally, residence staff have zoned the common areas of her dorm as nut-free, which she finds a great accommodation.

‘Best Practice’ Advice: Elise has this tip for new students with diet restrictions – “If you will be on the dining plan, become friends with the dining staff. Go and introduce yourself. The better they know you, the better they will be at keeping you safe.”

Reed Pake

Attending: He is a junior at Emerson College in Boston, majoring in visual and media arts.

Diet Issues: Reed, 21, is allergic to peanuts, eggs, dairy, tree nuts, mustard and sesame.

Campus Living: He sought out schools in his academic major before looking at how to manage his food allergies in college. Reed has lived in a single room throughout college, so he hasn’t had to navigate any roommate issues. While he has access to a community kitchen, “I would never use it because it is too risky.”

Tougher Moments: In his first week at a previous university, Reed unfortunately experienced anaphylaxis, even though he and his family had trained the dining staff about his food allergies ahead of his arrival on campus. Instead of allowing this to frighten him, Reed took this on as an opportunity to retrain the dining staff on his specific needs.

There was never an issue with the cafeteria again, and nor has he had issues at Emerson.

Positive Experiences: Reed says the dining hall at Emerson “has been awesome and able to accommodate my needs perfectly.” As well, he enjoys being able to eat out at restaurants in the Boston area, particularly a pizza chain and a Japanese restaurant. He notes that “I’m lucky to live in a state where there is food allergy legislation,” which includes requiring kitchen allergy training. He views his best experiences in college as being in the classroom, as well as the “awesome opportunities outside of the classroom.”

‘Best Practice’ Advice: “Always read labels and make sure you know what is going into your body,” says Reed.

Danielle Nebel

Attending: She is a junior at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Diet lssues: Danielle, 21, is diagnosed with celiac disease and must follow a strict gluten-free diet.

Campus Living: The communications major looked at managing celiac as an equal priority to finding a college with a good program in her field. While touring DU, “we ate in the dining hall and talked to the chef. They were really accommodating. My school does a great job at providing gluten-free options.”

She has not experienced being ‘glutened’ in the dining hall, and relies on the listing of all ingredients displayed on TV monitors throughout the dining halls. Before school started, Danielle reached out to her assigned roommate to explain her desire to have her half of the dorm room free from gluten. The two “became really good friends” and roomed together again their second year.

Tougher Moments: These have involved restaurant outings, as she finds that dining out near her campus is not always easy. “It can be difficult to eat out with friends when trying to find gluten-free food.”

Positive Experiences: Danielle enjoys “having an allergy-friendly freezer with gluten-free foods in the dining hall.” High points of campus life have included “going to the hockey games with friends, especially the championship game,” and visiting downtown Denver.

‘Best Practice’ Advice: “Always stand up for yourself and communicate your food needs with the staff at the dining hall, and with roommates and friends.”

Anita Shah

Attending: A sophomore at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, she is in the life sciences undergrad program, which includes several science fields and mathematics.

Diet Issues: Anita, 19, has allergies to peanuts and all tree nuts.

Campus Living: When choosing a college, her priorities were to have a school close to home that also has a life sciences academic program. McMaster University fit both criteria.

Anita requested a single room through housing services, and included a doctor’s letter with the request, which was granted.

Tougher Moments: She found the move to college challenging. She describes it as “transitioning from home, a dedicated allergen-free refuge, to university, an allergen-infested environment.” During the first winter at school, Anita experienced anaphylaxis when her lab partner handled her snack after eating an almond granola bar, causing accidental cross-contamination. Anita, who was rushed to the hospital, learned the importance of teaching others about her food allergies and to “never hesitate to use your auto-injector.”

Positive Experiences: Since her serious reaction, Anita has had a lot of good times, “a result of the supportive environment that friends created.” Her friends have ensured she was comfortable with restaurants where they choose to eat and they now always know where her epinephrine auto-injector is kept.

‘Best Practice’ Advice: “Never be afraid to ask questions, and never consider yourself to be a burden” says Anita.

With communication, preparation and vigilance, college students with food allergies and celiac disease can enjoy a full campus life with friends, food and academic challenges. Finding the right living environment, whether in a dorm room or apartment, in a single or with a roommate, eating in the cafeteria or preparing your own meals – there are many ways to attend college and stay safe. Finding the right fit is the priority for any student with food allergies or celiac disease.

College Students Who Choose Home

In the course of interviewing, Allergic Living also spoke to other food-allergic students who were not comfortable with dorm living and cafeteria meals, often because of the severity of previous food allergy reactions.

Most such college students have chosen to live at home or, when affordable, in an apartment with a trustworthy roommate. One student felt that living at home reduced the stress of managing food allergies, allowing more energy to be focused on academic studies.

Students who chose these routes were still able to pursue new friendships at college, bonding in ways other than over the meals in the dining hall.

Read More:
Colleges that Go the Distance for Students with Food Allergies
Learning to Navigate Food Allergies and Friends On Campus