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About to embark on a family rite-of-passage at 18, Victoria Gray was excitedly nervous about heading to Acadia University in quaint Wolfville, Nova Scotia. She had chosen her residence and requested to room with her cousin. But before she set a foot in one ivy-covered building, a problem arose. Gray was diagnosed with celiac disease at the end of her Grade 12 year, pushing all gluten products strictly off the menu.
Never mind the challenges of leaving home for the first time, choosing her classes or making friends in a new town – just how she would navigate a dining hall that churns out meals by the hundreds became a huge concern for Gray.
Thousands of Canadian post-secondary students with food allergies and celiac disease are in Gray’s shoes every year. They are searching for that safe path through university without missing out on pivotal freshman experiences. While becoming oriented on a sometimes intimidating campus, with few familiar faces, students are simultaneously living away from home and their parents’ meals that are reliably free of allergens or gluten.
As someone still new to managing celiac, Gray feared she might be stepping into a minefield. She was elated to find Acadia’s dining hall staff so well prepared that they actually helped her to learn what was safe to eat (once stopping her from eating wheat-containing gravy). “They were very knowledgeable about it,” says Gray, who has just begun her fourth year of university.
After she was diagnosed, Gray e-mailed Acadia’s head chef, who arranged to meet with her once classes started. He showed her a separate kitchen area where the gluten-free products were stored and prepared, and the hot meals kept warm in a dedicated oven. Together they decided that custom gluten-free meals were the way to go. The kitchen staff would e-mail her the menu for the coming week. Gray could walk to the front of each lunch and dinner lineup and say her name, and a gluten-free meal would be waiting for her.
“It was great,” says the student who today lives off campus. “They accommodated me in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was causing them an issue,” she says. “I didn’t feel like a hassle, which was nice, because a lot of people make you feel like you’re a hassle.”
Increasingly, there is good news for the new allergy and celiac generation that is beginning to file through the doors of Canada’s institutions of higher learning. In a survey of 17 universities, Allergic Living found that a growing number of these institutions are starting to create policies to accommodate food allergies and celiac disease. That’s not to say all universities are on board – but knowledge about allergy symptoms, safe allergy and gluten-free kitchen practices and food services staff training is growing at a fast pace.
Numbers clearly help the cause, and the universities are responding to evolving diet demographics. As of 2012, about 2.5 million Canadians reported having a food allergy – a prevalence much higher than seen in previous decades – and the majority of those are young people yet to reach university. At the same time, the diagnosis of celiac disease is also increasing, with non-celiac gluten sensitivity recently recognized as affecting up to 6 percent of the population. Universities are awakening to the fact that, since students need to eat safely, a proactive approach is in everyone’s interest.
“You have to eat well to learn well and to function well,” says Stephanie Kwolek, a University of Western Ontario graduate. “This was certainly something that gave me some stress and anxiety,” she recalls about her peanut and tree nut allergies and leaving her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie for university. “Food was at the top of my priority list,” says Kwolek, who is now a medical student at McMaster University in Hamilton.
Parents, naturally, are worried too, and left wondering if they’ve equipped their new adult with enough allergy savvy to eat safely in so many new places. “You kind of wonder, will he do the right thing? Will he know what to do?” says Kerry Gaultois of Nanaimo, B.C., recalling when her eldest son was leaving the province to study at the University of Alberta. “It was a bit nerve-racking.”
Fortunately, many universities have food services and housing staff with both expertise and a willingness to help defuse the fear. Angela Emmerson, a registered dietitian and manager with food services at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, understands that students may feel stressed, even overwhelmed eating food cooked by the university’s chefs rather than by their families. She and her team feel an obligation to get it right. Emmerson says simply: “We do not want anyone feeling sick from eating food in the dining halls.”
Next: Planning ahead for living on campus