Navigating college residences and dining with serious food allergies can be challenging. Allergies to foods such as nuts, gluten, milk, shellfish, and soy are on the rise. Some homeschoolers chose to homeschool in part due to the difficulty of safely managing a serious food allergy while in a public or private school. Life threatening allergies often persist into adulthood and it parents understandably concerned when they read about tragic stories of college students who died as a result of food exposure. As teens with serious food allergies begin to consider college options, it is essential to investigate dining service policies and consider the college’s willingness to accommodate dietary needs.
Beyond simply warning students not to rely on cafeteria food, some colleges do little for students with food allergies. Other universities have been much more proactive in creating and implementing policies to consider the needs of students with allergies and intolerances. A recent finding by the Department of Justice against Lesley University of Massachusetts may encourage other colleges explore this issue more carefully. Lesley was found to have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to meet the needs of a student with Celiac disease. The university was ordered to pay a fine and to do more to develop dining plans for students with allergies.
Below you will find examples of colleges who have implemented policies designed to help students with food allergies. As you can see there are a wide range of approaches. A few schools seem to focus exclusively on concerns of nut allergic students or on students who are gluten intolerant. Some policies will strike many people with food allergies as really inadequate. For example, one college instructs students to pay attention to the name of the dish (Duh, really, you mean there are peanuts in peanut butter cookies?). More effective programs have implemented up to date technological approaches such as allowing students to text in the name of the cafeteria and what choice they’d like to make from the list of safe foods. Many colleges offer students the opportunity to meet with a dietician or chef to make sure they can find safe and nutritious options in college dining facilities. They may even custom design menus if current choices are inadequate. Students with fewer and more common allergies will typically find it easier to cope with college dining.
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
UNC Dining has clearly made it a priority to meet the needs of students with food allergies. Students begin by meeting with the school’s Registered Dietician and with the Executive Chef. They make up an individualized plan for the student’s needs. If the student can’t have sufficient safe food from existing menu offerings they will make custom offerings. The policy is also clear that students should feel comfortable asking serving staff to change gloves or provide access to an ingredient list.
Stanford offers a completely nut free dining hall. Stanford offers a number of organic and nutritious options and makes consultations available with nutritionists on staff.
Tufts is making an effort to meet the needs of students with special diets including food allergies, Celiac, and vegetarian and vegan students. Tufts dining staff meets individually with students and will make plans to make sure that they have foods on hand not that just meet the student’s dietary needs but also includes foods that the student enjoys eating. Students with Celiac can be assured dining staff will use separate cooking pans and utensils. They also have access to designated refrigerators stocked with gluten free foods.
College of the Holy Cross
Holy Cross in Massachusetts has made clear efforts to make life safer for students with food allergies including students with Celiac. Students can use their smartphones to tap into nutrition information online and make choices before they go to the cafeteria. Dining services also maintains a kitchenette near the cafeteria. It is stocked with specialty items and is accessible only to students with specific dietary needs.
University of Oregon
UO is using technology by allowing students to access an online program that includes the ingredients and nutritional content of foods. Students can search by meal and by cafeteria to location options that are free of common allergens such as wheat, soy, and nuts.
Columbia expresses a strong commitment to making dining safe for students with food allergies. “Our culinary and kitchen teams are educated on various food allergies and sensitivities, including training to prevent cross-contamination and taking the management of food allergies seriously. Managers across each Dining unit are available to address any questions and concerns that may arise.” Students have access to a Registered Dietician with specialist training in food allergies.
Calvin College is a small Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Calvin’s dining service provides”nut sensitive” food lines and “nut sensitive” tables. The college’s website instructs students to avoid consuming foods that might be unsafe and to use medication as needed.
BU Dining services “takes food allergies very seriously.” BU employs a staff person to attend to allergies and sanitation. Their goal is to insure students are empowered to manage their food allergies and can participate in cafeterias to the extent that is safe given their needs.
OU provides a coded system on each dish served in the cafeteria. This signage is designed to help students with special diets and food allergies identify foods they can eat. OU also suggests students meet with a dietician and formulate a specific food plan. Their site also notes though that mistakes can always happen. Vendors can make last minute substitutions and even with the best plans in place cross-contamination can happen.
Purdue offers to meet individually with students with food allergies to make a plan for dining. They have a clearly stated philosophy. “Purdue Dining & Catering is not in a position to guarantee a completely allergen-free environment, rather to minimize the risk of exposure, encourage student self-responsibility, and plan for effective response to possible emergencies.”
For more information:
Food Allergy Research and Education