Heading off to college should be exciting, with a little bit of trepidation, but mostly happy anticipation. If you are living with food allergies, there may be too much trepidation as you head to campus. The idea of navigating dining halls, parties and restaurants without your parents is scary, but it is also doable. In fact, this is a great opportunity to take control of your own life, your diet and your allergies and to take the steps you need to feel empowered and safe, no matter where you are.
Know Your Rights
The good news about heading off to college with food allergies is that many campuses have made great strides in protecting their students with food allergies. And students with those allergies have also made great strides in securing their rights to a safe campus. Just a couple of years ago, students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fought for and won the right to be recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The students won this recognition from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. They won $50,000 in damages and were guaranteed that the school would offer allergen- and gluten-free meal plans in the dining halls. The school agreed to provide hot and cold meal options, individualized meal plans, the option to pre-order meals, training for staff in how to avoid cross-contamination and display signs notifying students of foods that are allergen-free.
Although this settlement was specific to Lesley University, it set an important precedent. If you have a food allergy, you have rights in the public domain, which includes college campuses. It means that you have a right to equal access of school amenities and benefits. This includes access to dining halls without fear of becoming sick or having a reaction to an allergen.
Be Your Own Advocate
The Lesley University decision was a big and important step forward for students going to college with food allergies, but it doesn’t mean you can just sit back and trust that your campus dining halls are always safe. Take matters into your own hands. Find out what your school’s written policy on food allergies is, and if it isn’t adequate, demand that changes be made. Organize with other food-allergic students and see what difference you can make on campus and for future students.
Create an Action Plan
Hopefully you have chosen a college with a solid policy in place for providing allergen-free and contamination-free foods, but even if you have, you still need to be careful. Before you head off to school, have an action plan in place. Work with your doctor or allergist to create this plan and put it in writing. The plan should include steps to take if you have a reaction, what medications you need, where they are and how to administer them. It should also include information for a local allergist and emergency medical services if you are going to school away from home.
Make Food Allergy Allies
Once you are on campus, connect with other students who have food allergies. With these people you can share ideas and news and just find supportive listeners who understand your challenges. Your food allergy buddies can also be companions for when you go out to parties or restaurants. You can look out for each other and respond if one of you has a reaction. Although you should be your own first line of defense, having people on your side can make a big difference in staying safe and feeling comfortable in different situations.
Be Safe and Have Fun
Most importantly you need to strike a balance between being safe on campus and enjoying the experience. Remember that having food allergies is just one small part of who you are. It doesn’t define you, so don’t let it. At the same time, you always have to be aware of the possibility of allergens getting into your food and causing reactions. The more precautions you take, the easier it will be for you to relax and have fun. Plan your meals, investigate your campus dining policies and just say no to a food if you aren’t sure. It isn’t work the risk. Do these things and you can enjoy going to college, learning and making new friends.