Since birth, I have suffered from anaphylactic food allergies — to all of the top eight food allergens. On the surface, it seems like an obscene handicap, but in actuality, it is most certainly a blessing in a dark guise. This condition does not define me, but has formed my essence and taught me the virtue of compassion.
These severe food allergies prevented me from speaking until the late age of four, but I haven’t stopped speaking since. At an exceptionally young age, I had to come to terms with why I wasn’t able to eat what everyone else was eating, which led to my early maturation.
There were times I was socially ostracized by my peers and even by adults. In elementary school, I sat at a “peanut-free lunch table” completely alone. Amid class time when food, such as peanut M&Ms, was used to calculate the probability of drawing any given color, I was blackballed and shunned to watch from the sidelines. Adults saw me as a liability and would often refrain from letting me be around their kids. As a result, I had difficulty making friends. I felt like an outcast, but soon realized there was a calling in all of this. I felt it was my duty to spread awareness and understanding for people like me. I have learned the road to success is to take obstacles and tackle them with every ounce of strength and commitment until one becomes a beacon of hope for others.
But now that I am in college, I am learning hands-on how to tussle with the new challenges of living with food allergies that attempt to impede my daily life.
One of the biggest surprises on campus was the lack of awareness on food allergies that still exists, even among adults. Upon arriving at college, I found that the dining hall poses challenges for those both with and without allergies. The most outstanding flaw with the dining hall program is cross-contact. This is when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix. As a result, each food then contains small amount of the other food — but in such a small amount that it usually can’t be seen.
For someone who has severe allergies as sensitive as mine, it is virtually an impossible venture to eat at a dining hall without having an allergic reaction from cross contact. More so, the dining hall staff may not be well-educated on the dangers of cross-contact. Advocating for simple changes such as direction on changing gloves and using fresh utensils and pans could considerably scale down the likelihood of an allergic reaction among students. Equally essential I’ve found, is the need for dining hall programs to have a binder containing ingredient lists. Often, word-of-mouth assurances of what ingredients are in a certain meal is not enough to ensure the safety of students with food allergies. When arriving on campus, or even choosing a college, be sure to ask about these two, to help make your transition to campus life with food allergies a bit smoother.
For my first semester at college, I looked to experiment with the dining hall program, due to its ease of use and social significance in the college world. Unfortunately, two months into my endeavor, my body could simply take no more of the acute (and sometimes severe) allergic reactions, and even to just the food itself with my sensitive stomach. I found I’d still react and suffer even when simply eating cold cuts, refined carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables (which are all very hard to come into cross-contact.) So I used the following tips to take matters into my own hands until the appeals for my accomodations were met:
Cook with what works for you. For the remaining three months of my first semester, I ate the majority of my meals either from my microwave or Crock-Pot. Through this, I learned a great deal about what I was truly putting in my body and thus improved my health.
Pick a grocery day. I would skateboard about two miles to my local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s every Friday afternoon after class for groceries. I purchased non-perishable products, cold cuts, rice, beans, fruits, vegetables - just about everything a college student would need.
Meet With Your School's Office of Disabilities. My only downfall was that I did not have access to a kitchen, and my residential college wouldn’t grant me access to one because in my first meeting with The Office of Disabilities, I learned that “food allergies are not a legitimate disability.” Most people would shy away after losing a hard-fought battle, but that’s not in my blood. I catapulted back up and went a step above the director - the superintendent of The Office of Disabilities, but it wasn’t exactly easy sailing from there. I was able to explain how food allergies were certainly a disability; However I also had “to prove” that my food allergies were real.
Don't back down. I had to get numerous forms from my doctor, which were exceedingly troublesome to obtain - especially with being away at school. Thankfully I was able to retrieve the following: hospitalization records, a concrete list of foods I’m allergic to, a complete history of the problem, a list of current medications and dosages, allergy tests and evaluations used to establish my diagnosis (including a brief summary), and an evaluation by my last seen allergist.
At last, through hard work and determination, I was finally granted exemption from the meal plan, access to a kitchen in my dorm, and access to having a car on campus. Now I’m able to cook my own meals that are not only healthy but also safe from cross-contact.
Choosing the right dining program
Universities in Massachusetts tend to have outstanding dining hall programs. This is due to the Food Allergy Awareness Act of 2009 that was passed in Massachusetts, which mandates many precautionary steps to minimize the risk of illness and death due to accidental ingestion of food allergens.
During a Pre-Med workshop over the summer of 2014, I was to dorm at this school I never heard of before — Emmanuel College. I was taken aback by how knowledgeable and cooperative the dining hall staff were with me. The food was terrific and I didn’t feel ostracized — there was plenty I could eat.
Another notable school as I’ve learned from a great deal of friends whom attend it is the University of Chicago. UChicago distinctly provides students with serious food allergies the tools that they need to be active in the management of their allergy or food-related medical condition. The dining program helps in ways that are developmentally suitable for college students as they transition into adulthood. UChicago offers meetings with the dining hall dietician for ingredient consultation, access to the dry and cold food storage to review ingredients personally, online menus with ingredient lists to see beforehand what is being served, and a binder at every dining location containing ingredient lists. Dining hall staff will also change gloves or use fresh utensils or pans to reduce cross-contact, and color-coded utensils and pans are available upon request to reduce cross-contact concerns.