Must-Have College Tips for Students with Food Allergies

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: August 3, 2022
Must-Have College Tips for Students with Food Allergies
Photo: Getty

Plastic bins or cardboard boxes, which is your college packing pleasure? My son, now a graduate student, liked the bins, while my daughter fancies sturdy cardboard boxes. What they have in common is managing food allergies on campus.

Watching the ups and downs of two students with food allergies as they navigate their respective colleges away from home has been eye-opening. It has given me more than a few unexpected and valuable insights.

So students as you focus on starting this year’s college adventure, come along as I share with you my best tips on the transition. Parents, don’t go too far, later I have a few tips for you, too!

Smart Tips for Allergic Students

Housing Accommodations – Perhaps you think you don’t need to establish your rights to food allergy accommodations with the college. Afterall, your new roommate has promised to be supportive about your food issues. My advice is: things can change, and you need to be ready for the unexpected. You want to complete the disability forms and work necessary to establish your food allergy accommodations with your college’s Disability Services Office.

If you haven’t done this before moving in, do it soon. This will save you precious time, since it can take weeks to complete forms, visit your doctor, attend meetings and negotiate to set up accommodations. From experience, my daughter’s housing needed to be changed mid-semester, and she had to have food allergy accommodations fast. Thankfully, her status as a student with medical needs was established, so no time was lost!

Bonus College Tip: if you requested a medical single room, you should pay for standard housing (typically a double room) and not pay a surcharge. There is legal precedent for this, established under federal disabilities laws.

Dining Accommodations – Just as with housing, it’s wise to go through your college’s process to register as a person with food allergies who requires accommodations. Perhaps your favorite dining hall offers allergy-friendly meals to anyone who asks. Seems great, but here’s the problem: food-service managers and dietitians change jobs. Supply chain shortages can also make a staple you rely on unavailable, and food-service policies can change without warning.

Being “official” with the college means your rights are established, so your requirements will get priority. That’s far better than having to scramble if a situation changes.  

Be Mindful of Meds – Your epinephrine auto-injectors, asthma inhalers, and rescue medications need to follow you everywhere. Whether that’s to parties, classes, down the hall to the shower, hanging out, and on dates. Have a plan for how you’ll carry your medications. Consider a handy meds bag for backpacks or purses or take rescue devices in pockets for quick access. Keep them at your side, and they’ll be there when you need them. Allergic reactions happen anytime, anywhere.

Where Do Your Meds Live? Let friends and roommates know where you keep your epinephrine auto-injectors and asthma inhalers, both when you’re out and in your dorm room. Your friends genuinely want to help during an emergency. Have an Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan – and stow a printout with your meds. In an allergic reaction, the emergency plan helps keep nerves in check, and it gives friends vital information to handle a reaction.

Bonus College Tips: Hang a rescue medication pouch (including the emergency plan) on a hook in your room. You or friends can then access it swiftly. Use GPS key finders like Tiles or Apple Air Tags to track your rescue meds.

Closing Time – Learn about local pharmacy hours. In a college town, they may not be open as long as you’re used to. Some are even closed on Sundays. There’s nothing more frustrating than heading to pick up your asthma meds or replace epinephrine auto-injectors only to discover the pharmacy won’t open until Monday!  

Secret Lists – Shhh, now this you don’t tell everyone, but keep a list of allergy-aware restaurants in your head or on your phone. Being ready helps to ease those awkward allergy moments. So, when a new friend says, “Hey, want to grab something to eat?” You can fire right back with, “I heard Taco Man has great tacos.” Although you have already checked out the eatery, and it is safe for you.

On the Road – Plan to travel a lot with your sports, debate, dance team, or friends? Ensure a stop at a shopping center with a grocery store and fast-food joints. You can pop into the grocery store and pick up fresh allergy-safe yogurts, lunch meats, or fresh fruits while teammates grab quick grub from the restaurants. These refrigerator items can complement sandwich bread, granola, meat sticks or jerky, and other foods you pack.

Little Flavor-Boosters – Keep a stash of individual, allergen-safe packets of mustard, mayonnaise, or jams. These are great for sandwich-making when away from campus. Add safe bread, lunchmeats, allergy-friendly nut or seed butter, or dairy-free cheese. Tada! A nice, satiating sandwich in your hand.

Talk, Talk, Talk – No matter what happens, your mouth, your voice, and typing fingers are at the heart of solutions, or sharing gratitude. How you communicate makes all the difference. People value clear communication with excellent follow-up. Stay in touch with those helping you out – especially when you’re working out a problem. Don’t delay an email or drop by an office.

Bonus College Tip: A thank you note both personalizes and reminds people how much you appreciate their work to keep you safe.

Final Pep Talk – You’re excited about college, and you’ve got this allergy work. There is no skipping the inevitable bumps in the road. Still, an extra action or two can lessen stress, prevent an allergic reaction and make for a safer, easier college year. May these tips be the extra boost you need.

College Tips for Allergy Parents

Let’s get honest: if you’ve got a student who’s off to college, you have been fired from one of the best jobs you’ve had – food allergy manager. Now, your newest role is the always-on-call food allergy consultant. But before you pass the food allergy baton, there are a few things to wrap up – like dropping off your student at college. As someone who continues volunteering at my son’s alma mater during move-in weekend, here are a few parent-to-parent tips.

Separation 2.0 – Remember that first day of kindergarten? Well, it’s back with first-year college. However, this time, your student has 12 years of training, practice, and experience. Take comfort that they learned from the best, you!

Give your student a little grace. They are stuck between trying to look like they fit in during move-in while they might be terrified inside, wanting to run back to the car! Instill confidence as you bid farewell that they’ve got this. Share a few words about how you know they are equipped to handle whatever lies ahead.

Make the goodbyes easy on everyone. Hide those tears when you want to cry. You can let those out later.

Find your people – Consider joining a Facebook group, such as FAACT’s Parents of High School and College Students with Food Allergies. This private group started with just a handful of parents. Today, almost 5,000 parents and caregivers share tips and information about managing food allergies in high school and college – including specific college experiences.

As you leave your student to embark on life’s next big adventure, look forward to the new and rewarding young adult relationship that will emerge. It is satisfying to discuss food allergy topics with your student as a young peer. Keep in mind, you did a great job, and now for your young adult, the best is yet to come.

Caroline Moassessi is Vice President of Community Relations at the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT). Find more college information at FAACT and in Allergic Living’s Colleges section.