College with Food Allergies: Lessons From a Seasoned Mom

in Food Allergy
Published: August 20, 2015
019Robert, Nicole and Morgan Smith in the cafeteria at the University of Denver.

When my son, Morgan, now 19, was formally diagnosed with peanut allergies at 18 months old, one of my first thoughts was: How will he ever go to college? If you’re a food allergy parent, you probably understand anxiety about planning for the future. College is that great frontier where students eat all their meals in cafeterias and sleep in dorm rooms with some food-allergen-eating roommate. Worst of all, we can’t be there if something goes wrong.

Since his initial diagnosis, Morgan has added many more, while experiencing several allergic reactions. He has life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish and shellfish along with eczema, environmental allergies (furry pets and pollen) and mild asthma. This combination made living in a dorm a distant hope. Still, we wanted to be open to all possibilities.

In the junior year of high school, most students begin the process of searching for a college to fit their academic needs and dreams. A teen with food allergies has an important additional need: Finding a food allergy aware college. While deciding where to apply, we found those two factors to be equally weighted. 

Online resources for picking a college:
Our comprehensive chart comparing 32 U.S. colleges
Off to College with Allergies, Celiac

First, start by getting more information about the colleges on your child’s list by visiting the school’s website. Owing to the jump in the number of students coming into college with special food needs – celiac, vegan, vegetarian, allergies, intolerances, Crohn’s and colitis – many colleges now offer special menus and apps to track ingredients. Some have a dietitian on staff to assist with safe dining options. Dig deep into all the available information.

Is your child ready to leave home?

Even among teens without food allergies, there are plenty who are not ready to be hundreds or thousands of miles away from home. Others are more than ready. In any case, at age 18, food-allergic students, like the rest of the college-bound cohort, are considered legal adults. So, Mom and Dad, that means you won’t be negotiating accommodations with the Disability Services Office (DSO) of the college – your child will be!

Before leaving home, we agreed Morgan needed to learn and be willing to: ALWAYS carry his epinephrine auto-injectors; order food at a restaurant; grocery shop and cook for himself; properly react to an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis; train his friends about allergic reactions and administering his epinephrine auto-injector; be comfortable speaking with a doctor; remember to take all his medications for pollen allergies and asthma; advocate for himself with teachers, the Disability Services Office, chefs and employers.

This list may seem long; but that’s why it’s never too early to begin getting your child ready for the world on their own – and you have 18 years to work on it.

Morgan & Thomas June 2015Morgan and his roommate, Thomas.

Personally visit the colleges and universities

These visits are vital. Visiting in person gives you the true feeling of a school beyond the marketing message of its website. And asking the right questions while you’re on campus is the key to a successful fact-finding mission.

Start by evaluating you and your child’s own needs for college accommodations: What is your teen’s ideal living situation for her or his college years? Being at home, in a dorm or in an apartment? What is your child’s ideal college academically? Can these two criteria be met by one college?

Remember, it never hurts to ask for exactly what you want. If you want a chef to specially prepare your child’s meals, ask if that can be done. Does your child want to live in an apartment instead of the required freshman dorm? Ask for that.

Here’s a list of questions on food allergies and asthma that are useful when visiting a college:

• Are ingredients listed on all foods served in the cafeteria?
• Is there a chef on site to take special orders?
• Are the cafeteria workers trained on food cross-contact?
• How many of your child’s allergens are regularly served?
• Can I speak with a dining manager about my child’s needs?
• How old are the dorm buildings and cafeteria facilities?
• Has there been any water damage or flooding in the past?
• Are the dorms air-conditioned? (If not, what documentation will be necessary to submit for a medical necessity to live in air-conditioning?)
• Are pets (such as dogs and cats) allowed in the dorms?
• Can the resident adviser be trained on the administration of an epinephrine auto-injector?
• Can roommates be selected to ensure no food allergens are in the dorm room?
• How is a 911 call handled on campus?
• Is food allowed in classrooms and lecture halls?
• Is smoking allowed on campus?
• What paperwork is necessary to complete for the Disability Services Office?

There are dozens more questions you could ask, but the idea is to form your own list and be as thorough as possible. Speaking directly to the person in charge while visiting the campus is one way to make sure you get the answers you need. Set up personal meetings with each department (housing, dining, academic major department) when you visit the campus, and pick up business cards so you can follow up later if necessary.

It can be complicated to coordinate the timing of completing paperwork for the Disability Services Office when your child has yet to apply and be admitted to a college. We didn’t speak with the DSO directly on campus visits, nor did we fill out paperwork on the spot, because we didn’t want to flag Morgan prior to him being admitted. But most colleges have the DSO information on their website, along with deadlines for paperwork.

The 504 Plan from K-12 schools doesn’t follow your child to college. Every college we visited stated that accommodations are available in college, however there is a whole new set of paperwork to complete, and documentation of the medical condition will be necessary for the Disability Services Office to authorize the accommodation. Many DSO’s paperwork is not yet up to date to include food allergy accommodations. They generally deal with learning accommodations, so some patience and education of staff may be necessary on your part along the way.

Next: Once the college has been picked

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