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When her son David Parkinson was a little boy with allergies to seven different foods, Susan Leavitt shuddered at the thought of him leaving home one day to go to university. The idea of a young man at risk for anaphylaxis eating mass-prepared food in a huge dining hall alongside hundreds of students seemed unfathomable.
“I hope he gets into NYU or Columbia, there’s no way he’s going to leave New York,” she recalls thinking. But as David grew up and learned to take responsibility for his allergies, both mother and son gained confidence. When he first entered university, Susan knew that her son could live on campus and manage his allergies – that is, provided the food services staff could be relied on to do their part.
As it turned out, could they ever. At the University of Delaware, David had the honor of having his meals prepared by the university’s executive chef of catering. The two would meet to go over the menu for the week ahead: what was being made, what David wanted, and how they could make it work for him. David could even call ahead and let the kitchen know when he would arrive. The chef was so mindful of David’s needs that he insisted the freshman promise to only eat food directly from the kitchen. One time, David broke that rule and was eating something from a self-serve area. A staff member came rushing over to scold: “Where did you get that!?”
Today, David Parkinson recalls, “I knew all the staff in the dining hall, and they would take care of whatever I needed.” While he had gained tolerance to some foods since childhood, his allergies to dairy, nuts, fish and shellfish persisted and were enough of a menu challenge to lead to the personal treatment. Most of the time, he would receive a safe version of what everyone else was eating, like a cheese-free quesadilla. But sometimes he’d be treated to a filet or other high-quality item, instead of the standard fare offered to other students.
“I knew I was getting better food, without people necessarily knowing,” says the graduate in economics and political science.
Over at Boston College, the historic Jesuit institution, Elizabeth Ogden enjoyed a similar, almost royal accommodation. “It was like having my own personal chef,” says the 25-year-old, who graduated with a major in sociology in December. Every Sunday, Ogden, who has to avoid gluten, dairy and eggs, would e-mail the chef to go over the next week’s menu. The college would also purchase specialty items and keep them in a separate area that she could access at any time. “I can honestly say that I ate better at Boston College than I now do, living with a full kitchen of my own,” she says.
An astounding one in 13 children and teens now has a food allergy, representing a new allergy generation that’s just starting to arrive at the ivy-covered doorsteps of universities. Diagnosis of celiac disease is also increasing, and with non-celiac gluten sensitivity recently recognized as affecting up to 6 percent of the population, many universities are heeding increasing requests for gluten-free fare. They are beginning to “get it” when it comes to food allergies and celiac disease.
However, not all colleges are on board yet, and not every student is going to be lucky enough to get the personal chef treatment. But knowledge about symptoms, kitchen staff training and allergy practices are improving, with a number of colleges establishing new allergy-friendly policies on campus.
“An important focus of our work is that the student with food allergies enjoys the dining experience here as much as any other student,” says Kathy Whiteside, a registered dietitian at the University of Michigan. At UMich, allergen information is posted and easily visible in all dining halls and retail eateries. Even better, this information is also available online and easily accessible under the university website’s dining section.
These online menus, now used by many colleges, allow students to check out allergy-friendly meals. While it’s still advisable to confirm ingredients in person with a staff member, a student strolling along to the dining hall can effortlessly open the daily menu on their cell phone, run a filter for their allergens, and view the food choices that will be safe, all within seconds. Today, technology is assisting the student with allergies; a decade ago, this would not have been possible.
Standing in his kitchen at Eastern Michigan University, decked out in his chef whites and hat, Chef Tom Murray is surrounded by a typical scene: industrial appliances humming, the smell of fresh cooking wafting through the air, staff busily chopping and preparing meals.
On one side of the kitchen, glints of purple catch the eye, a sharp contrast to the standard issue white and stainless steel color scheme. This is a dedicated allergy-aware station, and the color lavender signals that – a visual cue and constant reminder. There is cookware in this area with lavender on the handles, while cutting boards and plates are completely purple. The color scheme is part of the university’s food allergen and intolerance program, and only the designated allergy chef is allowed to work within the section. Meal orders are flagged with allergen labels that indicate both the student’s name and what each tray is free of (for instance, “no gluten”, “no dairy”, “no peanuts”). Murray’s lavender section includes everything needed to make safe meals, and rigorous attention is paid to avoiding cross-contamination.
Next: Improving allergy awareness in college kitchens