Making mistakes in college is sort of a rite of passage… at least that’s what I tell myself when I reflect on how I handled my food allergies during undergrad. I started college in 2004. Social media was still in its infancy and “The Facebook” was for intracollege (between universities) networking; I lacked the food allergy resources that are available today, and I certainly didn’t know anyone who had to navigate multiple, severe food allergies in a college cafeteria. 

My allergies are primarily to uncommon foods, and the long list has fluctuated over time. Around age 12, my allergies had stabilized. But the environmental impact of living in NYC on 9/11 caused a resurgence in the severity of my allergies; I learned the hard way, on a teen tour of the west coast one summer, that my cabbage allergy had become airborne. Two years later, I started college without much practice living independently with my worsening food allergies. Hence, the mistakes, and the lessons I learned:

College cafeterias can be a minefield for students with food allergies.
College cafeterias can be a minefield for students with food allergies.

1. Cross-contact is worse than you think.

The dining hall was a buffet with hot food stations and a salad and cereal bar. As a freshman, I asked the staff for the ingredients in the hot sides. Ratatouille with zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes? I could eat those veggies! But sometimes, I’d get sick anyway. After multiple reactions, I pressed the staff, asking if they were sure there were no additional ingredients. I learned that the cafeteria often repurposed vegetables that were leftover from previous meals. If they served pasta primavera with mushrooms (one of my allergens) one night, they’d take the leftover veggies and make a ratatouille that was ‘mushroom-free’. I was constantly eating foods that cross-contacted with my allergens. This ultimately led to more severe reactions from overexposure.

2. Junk food isn’t enough.

When I couldn’t find food in the cafeteria to eat, I resorted to an old trick — empty calories! It wasn’t unusual for me to eat chips and cake as my meals for the day. My friends were snacking constantly, complaining about the ‘freshman 15’. I would snack along with them…only, I lost 15 pounds, since I wasn’t eating meals. I thought I was clever, eating Pizza Pringles as dinner, convincing my taste buds that they were getting actual pizza. My stomach ached all the time, and I’d overeat during breaks just to stock up on nutrients. It took me far too long to realize I needed to find a ride to the off-campus grocery store to shop for foods I could prepare in my dorm. 

3. Use microwaves wisely.

Microwaves are a lifesaver for students with food allergies. I ate a lot of boxed soups, baked potatoes, and microwaveable meals. My ultimate lifesaver was a microwaveable pasta maker that allowed me to make pasta and rice safely. Emphasis on “safely” — I got famous my freshman year for cooking a box of rice pilaf without realizing the plastic bowl I had was not microwave safe, inadvertently causing a small fire and the evacuation of my entire building into the cold, Boston rain. Once I got the right dishware, I was able to sustain myself without much reliance on the dining hall.

4. Sometimes you need to ask not once, not twice, but three times for help.

By junior year, I was highly engaged in campus life and didn’t let my food allergies get in my way. There was only one thing missing: I wanted to eat more veggies, but didn’t know how, since those are my primary allergens. I enlisted the help of the campus nutritionist, who pitched me on the wonders of gluten-free pasta and chicken parm. Given that I am not gluten-sensitive, and keep kosher (I don’t mix meat and dairy), her advice was worthless.

She directed me to the campus doctor, who “didn’t believe in food allergies,” and told me my going to the dining hall would be a liability to the school if my allergies were actually real. This was more of a bullying tactic than a reality; the doctor was adamant that food allergies didn’t exist. She even called my primary care doctor back home to question the diagnosis. (Luckily, he stood up for me and taught me that not all medical professionals can be trusted). 

The nutritionist then convened a meeting for us with the assistant dean and the dining plan managers. The dean suggested I move to an open room in an occupied grad student apartment. That way I could have access to a kitchen and wouldn’t have to rely on the dangerous dining hall. At this point, I was done making mistakes and could tell I was being completely misunderstood. The nutritionist, doctor, and assistant dean didn’t understand that part of living with food allergies is coping with the reality that I could be exposed to an allergen at any time — I often had reactions when classmates would bring salads to lectures that overlapped with meal times (another mistake: scheduling classes during common lunch hours).

The Middle Ground

I wasn’t looking for a way to cure my allergies — although that would be nice. I knew my condition and had my emergency action plan in place. But also, I didn’t want to have the reality of my medical condition questioned or redefine my entire college experience. I knew I was better off staying where I was. Living with my best friends who didn’t bring allergens into our suite was favorable compared to trusting a stranger to keep the shared kitchen safe. All I wanted from the university was to eat more vegetables and not waste money on a dining plan that didn’t suit my needs!

To my surprise, it was the dining plan representatives who finally understood what I wanted. They agreed and offered to make special meals for me to pick up in the cafeteria and for any catered events I attended. Following the meeting, they checked up on me regularly. They made me feel seen, heard, and validated. I wasn’t a dumb college kid and a liability, but a resilient woman who had learned to ask for what she needed. You could say I graduated.

New Laws for Accommodations

People with food allergies — whether they’re kids on a playground, students at college, or adults in the workplace — deserve access to healthy, affordable food. Fortunately, since my time in college, a lot has changed for the better. In 2012, a few years after I graduated, a settlement was reached between the US Department of Justice and Lesley University that prescribed ways higher education institutions should cater to students with food allergies within the parameters of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Someone else with allergies had suffered like I had, and had the bravery to speak up about it and make change. This settlement includes suggestions for accommodations, like preparing nutritionally comparable meals, disclosing allergens, making reasonable attempts to avoid cross-contact, and making the purchase of allergy-friendly food more accessible.

There may still be speedbumps in the college experience, but if you know your rights and find the people who will champion you, you’ll be just fine. Even after it all, I still think college was some of the best years of my life! 

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