Must-Have College Tips for Students with Food Allergies

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Plastic bins or cardboard boxes, what is your pleasure in packing your studies? My son, now a graduate student, loved the bins, while my daughter loves the sturdy cardboard boxes. Their common thread is the management of food allergies on campus.

Watching the ups and downs of two students with food allergies as they navigate their respective colleges away from home was eye-opening. It gave me more than a few unexpected and valuable insights.

So students, as you focus on starting this year’s college adventure, come share with you my best transition tips. Parents, don’t go overboard, later I have some tips for you too!

Smart tips for students with allergies

Housing Housing – You may not feel that you need to establish your food allergy accommodation rights with the college. After all, your new roommate has promised to support you with your food issues. My advice is this: things can change and you have to be prepared for the unexpected. You want to complete disability forms and work to establish your food allergy accommodations with your college’s disability services office.

If you didn’t do this before you moved in, do it soon. This will save you valuable time, as it can take weeks to fill out forms, see your doctor, attend meetings and negotiate to put accommodations in place. From experience, my daughter’s housing needed changing mid-semester, and she needed to have food allergy accommodations quickly. Fortunately, her status as a student with medical needs has been established, so no time wasted!

Bonus University Council: if you have requested a single medical room, you must pay for standard accommodation (usually a double room) and do not pay extra. There is a legal precedent for this, established under federal disability laws.

Dining room – As with housing, it is wise to follow your college’s process for registering as a person with food allergies requiring accommodations. Maybe your favorite dining room offers allergen-free meals to anyone who asks. Sounds great, but here’s the thing: food service managers and dietitians change jobs. Supply chain shortages can also make a staple you rely on unavailable, and foodservice policies can change without warning.

Being “official” with the college means your rights are established, so your requirements will take priority. It’s much better than having to scramble if a situation changes.

Pay attention to medications – Your epinephrine auto-injectors, asthma inhalers and rescue medications should follow you everywhere. Whether for parties, classes, in the hallway to the shower, outings and dates. Have a plan for how you will transport your medications. Consider a handy medicine bag for backpacks or purses or carry life-saving devices in pockets for quick access. Keep them by your side and they’ll be there when you need them. Allergic reactions happen anytime, anywhere.

Where do your drugs live? Let your friends and roommates know where you store your epinephrine auto-injectors and asthma inhalers, both when you’re out and in your dorm room. Your friends really want to help you in an emergency. Have a Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan – and put away a printout with your medication. In the event of an allergic reaction, the emergency plan helps control nerves and gives friends vital information to manage a reaction.

Bonus University Tips: Hang an emergency medication pouch (including the emergency plan) on a hook in your room. You or your friends can then quickly access it. Use GPS key finders like Tiles or Apple Air Tags to track your emergency medications.

Closure hour – Find out about the opening hours of the local pharmacy. In a college town, they may not be open until you get used to them. Some are even closed on Sundays. There’s nothing more frustrating than picking up your asthma meds or replacing epinephrine auto-injectors only to find the pharmacy won’t open until Monday!

Secret Lists – Shh, now you don’t tell everyone, but keep a list of allergy-sensitive restaurants in your head or on your phone. Being prepared helps alleviate those awkward allergy moments. So when a new friend says, “Hey, do you want to eat something? You can fire back immediately with “I heard Taco Man has great tacos.” Although you have already checked the restaurant, it is safe for you.

On the road – Plan to travel a lot with your sports, debate, dance team or friends? Be sure to stop at a mall with a grocery store and fast food outlets. You can pop into the grocery store and pick up some fresh allergen-free yogurt, deli meats, or fresh fruit while your teammates grab a quick bite at the restaurants. These fridge items can complement sandwich bread, granola, meat sticks or jerky and other foods you pack.

Little flavor boosters – Keep a supply of individual sachets of allergen-free mustard, mayonnaise or jam. They’re great for making sandwiches when you’re away from campus. Add safe bread, deli meats, allergen-free nut or seed butter, or dairy-free cheese. Tada! A good filling sandwich in your hand.

Talk, talk, talk – No matter what, your mouth, voice, and tapping fingers are central to solutions or sharing gratitude. The way you communicate makes all the difference. People appreciate clear communication with great follow-up. Stay in touch with those who help you, especially when you are resolving a problem. Don’t delay an email or drop by the office.

Bonus University Council: A thank you note personalizes and reminds people how much you appreciate their work in keeping you safe.

Final pep talk – You’re excited about college, and you’ve got this work on allergies. It is impossible to skip the inevitable bumps in the road. Yet one or two additional actions can reduce stress, prevent an allergic reaction, and make the college year safer and easier. Let these tips be the extra boost you need.

University advice for parents with allergies

Let’s be honest: if you have a student going to college, you’ve been fired from one of the best jobs you’ve ever had: food allergy manager. Now your new role is that of an always-on-hand food allergy consultant. But before you hand over the food allergy baton, there are a few things to wrap up, like dropping your student off at college. As someone who continues to volunteer at my son’s alma mater over the moving weekend, here are some parent-to-parent tips.

Separation 2.0 – Do you remember that first day of kindergarten? Well, it’s back with the freshman year of college. However, this time your student has 12 years of training, practice and experience. Take comfort that they have learned from the best, you!

Give your student some grace. They’re stuck between trying to look like they fit in during the move in when they might be terrified inside, wanting to run for the car! Instill confidence by saying goodbye they have this. Share a few words about how you know they’re equipped to handle whatever comes their way.

Make it easy to say goodbye to everyone. Hide those tears when you feel like crying. You can let them out later.

Find your collaborators – Consider joining a Facebook group, such as FAACT Parents of high school and college students with food allergies. This private group started with just a handful of parents. Today, nearly 5,000 parents and guardians share tips and information on managing food allergies in high school and college — including specific college experiences.

As you leave your student behind to embark on life’s next great adventure, expect the rewarding new relationship of young adulthood that will emerge. It is satisfying to discuss food allergy topics with your student as a young peer. Keep in mind that you did a great job, and now for your young adult, the best is yet to come.

Caroline Moassessi is Vice President of Community Relations for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT). Find more information about the college at FAACT and in Allergic Living’s Section Colleges.

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