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Food Allergy

Off to College – with Food Allergies

To further assist, the staff in food services will buy allergy-friendly foods at wholesale prices, keeping students’ costs lower. “This is their home and we need to be there for them,” explains Heather Seymour, the food services coordinator. The main cafeteria station also just implemented a no-nuts and no-peanuts policy in time for the fall semester.

Still, such accommodations are not yet the norm. Some of the top institutions of higher learning offer no special accommodations or directives for making substitutions in the meal plans. UWO’s nutritionist notes, however, that the food services staff does attend an annual training session with Anaphylaxis Canada on safe food handling, and that students are encouraged to work with the chefs and supervisors to ensure that safe options are available.

If you’re in residence at U of T, the administration recommends that allergic students work with the food services company to find appropriate dining choices. But as you must take part in the meal plan, this is not foolproof.

In residence, Creese asked the food services staff about ingredients at every meal. Yet in first year, she fairly often took ill after eating. Eventually, the student became the “meal plan fairy,” giving away her cafeteria tickets to friends.

Determined to spend the four years in residence, Creese had to pay for food she wouldn’t eat. “That’s $12,000 down the drain,” she says. But she ate well in her room: her mother lived 45 minutes away and was able to freeze meals that her daughter could microwave.

“It is difficult in university to create a safe environment,” says Creese, who is now married and completing a Masters of Science at the University of Guelph. “The [food services staff] were insensitive. Even the other food places on campus can be truculent when you ask about ingredients.”

Change may be slow, but it is coming as more institutions try to work out arrangements for students with allergies. Montreal’s Concordia University only has 200 kids in residence and while staff haven’t had to accommodate severe food allergies, the institution did remove all of the carpets in the dorms to reduce environmental allergens.

Last year, the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg announced a scent-free policy, encouraging its students to avoid certain perfumed products in consideration of those with asthma or sensitivities to chemicals.

South of the border, the range of accommodation of food allergies at U.S. universities and colleges is similarly broad. Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., for example, does not collect allergy information when admitting freshmen.

New students with allergies are directed to the school’s registered dietitian, who states on the university’s website that while 3 per cent of the population think they have allergies, only 1 per cent have “true allergies”. (According to the latest medical studies, the incidence has in fact risen to about 4 per cent in the general population.)

But then there is the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which provides a lot of helpful information for students, including lists of unsafe menu items for different food allergies and tips on how to handle emergency situations at college.

Anne Muñoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of the Virginia-based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, says that in the past five years, U.S. universities have “made very positive steps” toward accommodating students with allergies. While FAAN offers a free food service training program for universities, it is really the students who are driving the issue, she says.

“The kids have created a need for schools to get on board. Any school that wants to stay competitive will have to become food allergy friendly.” Muñoz-Furlong notes that Brown and Cornell universities, in particular, have both worked with FAAN to develop proactive policies for allergic students.

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