It’s difficult to know where to start when your child with food allergies gets to that age to begin the college search. The good news is that most high schools are well equipped with counselors to help with the college search itself; however it’s up to you and your child to pursue the discussion of food allergies with each individual college or university. We found that high school counselors weren’t educated enough about food allergies to know how to answer any of our questions about a college’s ability to feed our child in a dorm cafeteria.
A university website that states,” We can handle virtually any food allergy” was not sufficient for us to feel comfortable with our child living in the dorm and eating in the cafeteria. We wanted to visit the school, eat in the cafeteria, talk with the dietitian on staff, discuss ingredients being listed for all foods and determine the menu selections for each meal in addition to discussing academics. It takes more effort to find a school that meets your child’s desires for a major and for food allergies, but it’s well worth the time to ensure safety, enjoyment and a career destination.
Finding the “Right College”
Our daughter, Michaela, graduated from high school in 2009. She has celiac disease along with multiple other severe food intolerances (beef, pork and lemon to name a few). She didn’t really know what she wanted to major in, but she had a general idea of a Liberal Arts major, so that helped our search. I suggest looking for colleges with a major in mind, and not with food allergies as #1 on your list of priorities. If your child decides that they want to major in a field that’s not offered at a particular college (that you chose for its food allergy expertise), then you have to start the food allergy education process over with another school when your child transfers. Choose a major and then take a look at the cafeteria!
Michaela knew that she wasn’t interested in moving out of state. If your child does want to go to a school out of state, looking for a local allergist would likely be necessary prior to enrollment. The maturity of your child is a large factor in moving far away and making this a positive experience. Moving a long distance away from family is difficult for children who don’t have food allergies – managing food allergies on top of this big change may be more than what some kids can or want to handle. Asking your child, “What’s the ideal situation for you to go to college?” might yield some very interesting answers!
Visit Colleges and Universities
Michaela had participated in numerous one week and two week music camps through her high school years at several universities in Colorado. This gave her first hand experience of how the cafeteria works and what living at the school for an entire semester could look like. Sadly, she found that only one school – the University of Denver – was able to cook for her safely. All of the other schools either weren’t able to provide three safe meals per day or weren’t willing to try. One school had a gluten free menu for lunch and dinner, but not for breakfast. Another said, “we can cook anything you need,” and then had a menu of only 3 items – all of which included wheat. She ended up bringing her food for the entire one week camp and keeping it in a refrigerator utilizing a microwave to heat it. This can work for one week, but for an entire semester this would be onerous!
A friend and her gluten-intolerant daughter visited a college campus and asked the cafeteria manager what they do for students with celiac disease. The manager said, “We keep all peanut butter on a separate table!” It can be frightening the lack of understanding about food allergies and celiac disease in a college cafeteria where your child will basically be “eating out” for three meals a day.
We also went on campus visit days to numerous universities across Colorado. In the cafeteria, we searched for ingredient listings, talked with the dietitian on staff, and determined the menu selections for each meal. What we found was that the more expensive the tuition, the more likely a college/university cafeteria was to work with us. A large, public university that feeds 5000 students a day is very unlikely to accommodate a student with food allergies. One such school told Michaela that she was welcome to live in an apartment her freshman year. She gave that some thought, but decided that adjusting to college classes plus having to grocery shop and cook for herself was more than what she wanted to take on at 18 years old.
Many school cafeterias have students on work/study working in the cafeteria and this can make training about food allergies and EpiPens more difficult. Ask about the cafeteria workers when you visit a campus; watch how meals are served (same spatula used for serving all dishes?) and how plates are washed. All of this will help you and your child know where problems could occur.
Food Allergy Aware Colleges
I am currently participating in a committee looking into best practices of food allergy aware colleges for the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI). The University of Michigan (see link here) has probably one of the best systems for food allergy students. This is truly a food allergy aware college!
A food allergy aware school personalizes the experience of dining in the cafeteria; they don’t require living in the dorm freshman year (they allow for apartment living if your child is up for this!); they provide ingredient listings for all foods in the cafeteria; they have an aware chef and they have nearby EMTs and a hospital.
Many Ways to go to College with Food Allergies
Michaela decided to stay home her first year of college and then moved out to rent a room in a house near her school, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. This allowed her to get a repertoire of menu items that she learned how to cook, and she adjusted to college slowly. This was the perfect solution for her.
I know of students who went to college and lived in a single dorm room so they at least didn’t have to deal with a roommate bringing in unsafe foods. Others I know brought a microwave and refrigerator and prepared all their meals in their dorm room. Still others worked out safe menu items with the school cafeteria.
In other words, there are many ways to go to college with food allergies!
As a parent, it’s easy to want your child to have the same experience you had with school – maybe join a sport or live in a sorority house. Our suggestion is to allow your child to create his/her own experience. It’s likely to be far different from yours, but that’s okay. And it might have been different even if your child didn’t have food allergies!