Managing food allergies on college campuses

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Freshman Phoebe Blond laid unconscious on the cold tile floor of Dana Hall High School, just five minutes after the first bell.

This was the day that the peanut butter protein bar that Blond ate every morning decided to turn on her. This was the day that Blond’s life would change forever.

“I blacked back in and I was in the hospital bed after being ambulanced [sic] to the hospital with anaphylactic shock,” Blond said.

After a life of no food intolerances, in one day deadly allergies became a part of Blond’s life. She would no longer be able to eat nuts or stone fruit.

Now, as a junior in college, Blond has had three years of experience with managing her life-threatening allergies on her own.

“Since coming to SMU, I have definitely had to be more cognizant of what I’m eating,” Blond said.

College students with food allergies face the daunting task of taking full responsibility for their allergies. These first-time independents are often used to the support and monitoring of their parents, and they must learn to take their health into their own hands as they move away from home and begin college.

“I think the biggest challenge is learning how to speak up and take responsibility for managing personal food allergies or intolerances,” Rachel Kolm, the SMU registered dietitian says.

College is the first experience living without direct parental supervision for most people. Students must take full responsibility for all aspects of their lives during this unique stage of life. Responsibilities for students with food allergies include monitoring meals, familiarizing peers with their allergy, and in some cases, carrying self-injectable epinephrine.

Courtney Vrij, an SMU junior, says that life with celiac disease has gotten more difficult as she has transitioned to adulthood, living away from home for the first time.

“Being on my own was certainly challenging in regards to my disease because I was used to my mom cooking homemade gluten-free meals for me, so now I have had to learn to cook and discover new places that support my allergy,” Vrij said.

Countless students with food allergies find college life to be challenging in terms of handling their dietary needs. The SMU dietitian says that SMU Dining takes all allergies into account and sets students with allergies up for success.

“SMU Dining supports students who have food allergies by providing information and knowledge that is necessary for the student to make informed food choices in our dining locations,” Kolm said.

While Kolm believes SMU Dining provides food options for everyone, studies show that colleges might not be equipped to handle the needs of students with food allergies.

According to a study done on food allergy attitudes among college students, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network acknowledges that universities are in need of education regarding the nature of food allergies and how to advocate for and protect students with food allergies.

The study denotes that attentiveness and management of food allergies on college campuses is less than ideal. Further, the study finds that food allergies have dramatically increased in the past 10 years, which may account for college campus’ inability to keep up.

The study also claims that allergists caring for college students must support them by helping them avoid taking risks with their food and encouraging them to carry self-injectable epinephrine (SIE), when parents can no longer be the advocate.

Rachel Kolm, the SMU dietitian, says that the key to handling a food allergy in college is notifying the school about the allergy.

“The first step in food allergy management is to notify us so we can try to make any accommodations necessary,” Kolm said.

It makes sense that colleges cannot accommodate everyone’s dietary needs without notification, which is why the food allergy study by Greenhawt, Baptist and Singer suggests that university health services screen individuals for food allergies via some type of form, prior to the student coming to campus.

Students with food allergies, like Courtney Vrij, find that the SMU dining halls do not have enough options to accommodate everyone, despite the school’s best efforts.

“I found the SMU dining hall to have some gluten-free choices, however the selection was very limiting which made me not want to go to the dining hall frequently,” Vrij said.

A young adult with a food allergy will always carry the burden of having to be constantly diligent about what goes into their body. College students with allergies discover that the worry will never cease as they transition from living on campus and using the dining halls, to living elsewhere and fending for themselves.

“Even though I am able to cook for myself now that I live off campus, it is still challenging for me to be around friends who can eat all of my favorite foods that I cannot eat anymore and I am very tempted to join,” Vrij said.

Phoebe Blond finds eating at her sorority house is even more challenging for handling her deadly nut allergy and stone fruit intolerance.

“Now that I have the meal plan at my sorority, I have to be even more aware because the ingredients aren’t listed super well, so I have to always make sure I ask what is in things,” Blond said.

St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., is one of few colleges that have stocked up on epinephrine and trained security, health care employees and resident assistants to give students injections in the case of an allergic reaction. St. John Fisher College seems to be ahead of the curve.

Jon Terry, the founder of The Allergy Advocacy Association in Rochester feels that all public sectors should make an effort to have epinephrine on site with individuals trained to it to save lives.

“Soon our association will be launching a new outreach program,” Terry said. “We will use it to assist any public entity wishing to stock non-patient specific epinephrine at their location.”

Students with nut or other deadly allergies, like Phoebe Blond, are already well versed in the language of SIE. The frightening reality is that in the case of a reaction, bystanders must be able to use the SIE. There has been no word as to whether or not SMU will implement this level of allergy insurance.

Students who deal with food allergies, like Blond, find that managing their allergies is ultimately up to them. Despite colleges’ attempts to ensure their students’ safety, students with food allergies must constantly be aware and take responsibility for their own lives.

“I’m not fearful that I am going to encounter something deadly, but I don’t think that SMU has done anything to help me,” Blond said.

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