In September, an estimated 150,000 Canadian students with food allergies will be going to university or college. For first-year students, the transition from high school to post-secondary is a significant change in their lives.
While living away from home is a new and exciting experience for most young people, the anticipation for those with food allergies can be entirely different. For those students, the change to a new environment complicates the simple act of eating. From established patterns of knowing where to eat, surrounded by family and friends who know and understand their allergies and how to respond to a severe reaction, to an entirely new situation where that level of familiarity does not yet exist.
Students with food allergies have the additional pressure of having to figure out how they can stay safe while on campus, on top of navigating new social circles and the usual nervousness of starting a new phase in their lives.
As a parent of teenagers with multiple food allergies, I very much relate to how anxious parents may feel about this transition. These feelings are understandable, in fact, U.S. research from the U.S. shows evidence that teens and young adults are at the highest risk of having an anaphylactic reaction because of their risk-taking behaviours:
- Only 61 percent of teens/young adults always carry their epinephrine.
- 42 percent of teens/young adults would eat food labelled “may contain”.
- 60 percent of teens/young adults tell their friends about their allergy.
As parents, we work hard to ensure our children are being vigilant in managing their allergies 100 percent of the time. However, we know they can be inconsistent. I can certainly attest to this being the case with my sons. And even though I know they are fully capable of managing their food allergies, this transition to independence still can be worrisome.
That’s why I am so pleased to tell Allergic Living followers about the launch of Food Allergy Canada’s new guide: Managing Food Allergies and Anaphylaxis: A Comprehensive Guide for Post Secondary Institutions. This resource provides Canadian academic institutions with the tools they need to develop a comprehensive framework for supporting students with food allergies. Institutions are provided with specific recommendations on allergen protocols at food-service outlets, campus awareness and education, housing and dining procedures and on options for stock epinephrine auto-injectors.
While students are expected to manage their allergies, Canadian universities and community colleges can help by encouraging a supportive and inclusive campus environment – creating a safe setting for the students to disclose their allergies and providing services and supports for managing risks.
This guide was inspired by the tragic passing of Andrea Mariano in September 2015, just two weeks into her first year at an Ontario university. Our former Executive Director Laurie Harada, spearheaded the development of this post-secondary guide to help support all students with food allergies and to help them stay safe on campus. Following two years of extensive consultation with over 75 stakeholders from across Canada, we officially launched this guide in May.
The response to the launch has been incredible, with almost 60 percent of universities across Canada downloading the free guide.
We’re thrilled that more and more post-secondary institutions are factoring in allergy-awareness for their campus environments. However, managing food allergies continues to be a shared responsibility. Here are a few things we parents can do to help prepare our young adults to navigate this new environment:
- Visit the campus in advance of the academic year to understand what practices and protocols are in place to help you navigate living with food allergies.
- Talk to the food-service department. Together with your son/daughter, speak with food-service management and understand options for meals and the training that staff members receive on managing food allergens.
- Have your student connect with their roommate in advance to discuss their food allergies, how to manage the risks, and how they can help in an emergency.
- Reinforce to your son/daughter good self-management habits, including:
- Letting others know about their food allergies
- Recognizing signs of a serious reaction and how to help
- Always carrying their epinephrine auto-injectors
- Always reading food labels
- Always asking about ingredients and food preparation when dining out.
Be sure to visit foodallergycanada.ca/campusguide, where you can download your own copy of the guide and get access to additional resources and tools for students and their families. Let us know what you think.
And ask the Canadian institution your son/daughter will attend if they have downloaded the guide and what actions they are taking to improve the level of support on campus.
Jennifer Gerdts is the Executive Director of Food Allergy Canada.