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Food Allergy

Off to College – with Food Allergies

”While it is often considered safest to avoid residence, Joanna Clarke sought out the dorm life in first year at Halifax’s Dalhousie University. Now living in an apartment with friends and in third year, Clarke, 19, found residence an important experience because of the limits that her peanut and soy allergies put on her social life.

Such restrictions continue: “If there are peanuts served at a bar, I don’t go.” And she asks, “How important can one party be that it could cost me my life?” She made friends in residence who were sensitive to her allergies, and those friends became active in protecting her against exposure to peanuts. “A lot of them are more paranoid than I am. They’re really good about watching out for me.”

Careful, not fearful

Some universities have even gone so far as to identify students as “disabled” to underline the severity of their allergies. Morgan Hill, for example, last term finished a degree in agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was classified as such.

While not every allergic student would want this designation, it ensured that all of his professors were warned, in writing, about his peanut allergy and they were required to ask students not to eat peanut products during class. Hill now lives in Edmonton and works with farmers to introduce environmentally friendly practices.

He admits that college was still difficult at times. “The reason I chose to go to university was that I felt I could not live my life in fear that I was going to have an allergic reaction,” says Hill, who is highly sensitive to peanuts. “It was kind of living on the edge, but I survived by being careful, and living each day to the best of my ability.”

Hill’s no-fear approach is a common refrain among students who have lived in residence at university. All agree that with some effort, anxieties can be assuaged.

Larissa Teoh, 21, and her mother, Jo-Anne, have found a happy medium now that Larissa is in fourth year at Dalhousie University. Living in Hamilton, Ont., while her daughter went to school in Halifax was at first a concern for Jo-Anne. “Whenever there’s distance, it’s frightening. You can’t get there fast enough.”

Jo-Anne spoke to Dalhousie’s head chef and explained her daughter’s peanut and nut allergies, and was assured that peanut butter was only offered in small, individually packaged containers that were offered with plastic knives. She also managed to get a private room in residence for her daughter.

The adjustment to university is sometimes harder on parents than students. “I’m not sure how much I can let go,” says Sue Wicks, whose 18-year-old son, Peter, has just started university at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. Wicks, who lives an hour and a half away in Sarnia, is concerned about cross-contamination in residence, such as peanut butter residue in a shared kitchen.

She trusts her son, but stays rooted in reality. Asked whether Peter carries his EpiPen at all times, Wicks replies: “Would I like him to? Yes. Does he? No.” But she has made it clear “that at no time will he ever be able to get so drunk that he doesn’t know what he’s putting in his mouth.”

Peter is a bit more Zen: “I’d like to be able to control how the food is cooked,” he says, noting that he’ll be aware of whether others use and properly clean his cooking utensils. “But I’m not that worried.

”Especially with food allergies, university is a time of coming of age; there are many things that a parent no longer controls. One of Jo-Anne Teoh’s worries was the pubs and alcohol that contains nut products. “That was another milestone: If your friend says, ‘Here, try this drink,’ Larissa might not think of it.”

Jo-Anne worried about cross-contamination and accidental ingestion of peanuts, but her daughter was more sanguine. “I know people are very helpful and accommodating,” she says. “If you live life in fear, being nervous about something you cannot control no matter where you are, you aren’t living at all. I grew up with this allergy, my mom taught me well, and I know how to take care of myself. If you don’t know how to take care of yourself, then I’d be worried.”

She may display the confidence of youth, but Larissa is right: preparation and allergy awareness are two of the keys to a safe university experience with food allergies. That, and remembering Mom’s good advice – speak up about those allergies.

*Name changed by request.

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