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Food Allergies in the Dorms

Tips to Help Keep Your Peanut-Allergic Teen Safe at College

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Updated July 30, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Whether it's peanuts, shellfish, milk or soy, food allergies are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 3 million U.S. children and teens have food allergies, up from 2.3 million a decade ago. Now, hundreds of thousands of those kids are heading off to college, where mom won't be overseeing the contents of their lunch bags anymore. And while your child's elementary school principal could declare his classroom or even the entire school peanut-free, that doesn't happen in college. So it's up to your teen to keep himself safe. Here's how:

First, understand that food allergies are not only on college radars, a major settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Massachusetts' Lesley University in Dec. 2012 acknowledged that people who suffer from severe or life-threatening food allergies or celiac disease (i.e., severe gluten intolerance) are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and entitled not only to safe, nutritious meals but a dorm dining hall experience comparable to their peers'. How this will play out remains to be seen, but you'll find more information on the settlement here.

Even before that, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a well-respected advocacy group and resource for food allergy sufferers, had been working with college administrators and food service providers to raise awareness and provide safe alternatives for students. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find any administrator or food service manager who isn't aware of these allergies.

The problem, of course, is two-fold. Big universities have big dining halls. Food is produced en masse, often in central locations, then dispersed to outlying areas by huge teams of workers. So you may have administrators or food service managers who completely understand the food allergy problem, but the food and any warning labels pass through so many hands, things may get lost along the way. The second issue is accidental ingestion - unmarked granola that includes crushed peanuts, for example, or cross-contamination from allergens prepared in the vicinity of or with the same utensils or equipment. These issues are covered by the settlement, as well, but it's early days yet.

Some colleges offer alternative entrees cooked specifically to accommodate food allergies. Brown University, for example, offers special dietary order forms, as well as nut-free salad bars and alternatives to anything containing nuts. The chef at Scripps College meets with students to go over dietary issues, then e-mails them a list of foods to stay away from and foods to try. FAAN offers a page of helpful tips on dealing with food allergies at college.

But ultimately, it is your child's responsibility to keep himself safe - and these parent tips should help:

  • As you prepare to pack your new freshman off to college, you'll be scheduling an off-to-college visit with his doctor to fill out campus health forms and get all those final health and wellness questions answered. Make sure the visit includes a discussion of your child's food allergies and any written medical instructions regarding allergies and treatment. Keep a copy for yourself; the other copy needs to go to health services and dining services at school.

  • Check the FAAN college network site, then have your child contact his university, the housing office and dining services to find out what food accommodations are available. You may decide that a single dorm room or an apartment rental are better alternatives to regular dorm life.

  • Make sure your child understands his own food sensitivities, including the many ways these foods can show up in cafeteria cuisine - someone with a peanut allergy, for example, needs to be extremely careful around Thai food, and baked goods or granola-type mixtures whose ingredients cannot be immediately discerned.

  • Make sure your teen is aware of the early symptoms of his allergic reactions - tingling lips, for example. Have him plan - in detail and with his doctor - how to get medical help: who to tell, where to go, and what medications are appropriate. If that includes carrying epinephrine or other medication, he needs to carry it 24/7. A particularly worrisome University of Michigan study (2007) found that just 22% of the kids who need to carry an EpiPen actually do so.

  • Make sure your child communicates his food allergy issues to his roommate(s) and R.A., as well as the campus health center and dining services.
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