Monday, February 22, 2010

Making the College Choice When You Have Food Allergies

In just a few short weeks, high school seniors across the country will find out which colleges they have been accepted to. Most students will need to make their choice by May 1st for enrollment in the fall – with only one month to make that tough decision.

For those with serious food allergies, this already very difficult decision comes with added complexity. In addition to weighing academic programs and financial aid, students with food allergies also need to make sure they choose a campus where they will be able to eat successfully.

As a Mom who has been through this process, I know how stressful this can be for both the parents and the student. Once you have narrowed down the choices, here are some suggestions for what you should consider, before you write that deposit check:

1. Understand the food plan – At first glance it seems like all college cafeterias are the same, but plans and food choices can differ dramatically. The two basic types of plans are all-you-can-eat and cash (also called declining balance) plans. In the former you may have a choice of number of meals per week in the cafeterias. In the latter you will pay as you go – paying only for what you eat. The food-allergic may be a little bit better off with a cash plan, as cafeteria choices tend to be very wheat-dairy-soy-corn centric, but this needs to be balanced with the next suggestion…

2. Understand where the food comes from – Large food operations that are vended or outsourced (i.e. the school has a contract with a mass food provider) will provide more complexities than a food operation that cooks meals in-house. Food staff and nutritionists have less control over food that arrives packaged in large vats or already prepared. The key here is consistency in ingredients, and the ability to know exactly what is in your food. An in-house operation generally makes it easier to both know what’s in the food, and to make adjustments.

3. Check on alternatives to the cafeteria – Many campuses have smaller eating facilities – including some that cater to special dietary restrictions (e.g. kosher or vegan). While these are not usually focused on food allergies, the adjustments made in these locations could be positive for the food-allergic. Also look off-campus. While pizza joints, sandwich shops, and ice cream parlors tend to surround college campuses, you might also find some allergy-friendly restaurants in the area. If there is a grocery store within walking distance to the campus, check that out too – do they carry your favorite allergen-free packaged snacks and foods?

4. Eat in the cafeteria – if you are able to visit the campus again, and you haven’t yet eaten in the cafeteria, now is the time to do so. If you attend a “decision day” (special visit day for accepted students designed to help the students make their selection), you might find that a special menu has been prepared for this day. I strongly advise you not to skip this step for that reason. Choosing to eat in the cafeteria will give you first-hand knowledge of how the food service team handles food allergies. You want to get in line with everyone else, let the first staff person you encounter know that you have food allergies, and watch how they handle it. Are they clear about what options you have? Are they willing to make special accommodations for you? And most importantly, are you comfortable with how they handled it?

5. Check on emergency health facilities – Hopefully you won’t need to use the health facilities due to food allergies, but you will want to understand what is available. I suggest calling the health director for the college. Ask where the emergency facilities are located, how easy it is to contact them, and where the nearest hospital is. Does the college have emergency transport services, should they be needed?

6. Search for the colleges you are interested in on the FAAN College Network. While this site is relatively new, some colleges and universities have submitted information on their food allergy approach, college representatives, and student ambassadors.

7. Meet with the Food Service Director and/or Nutritionist – You will have a much more detailed meeting with the nutritionist at whatever school the student selects in the summer or fall, but for now you want to know enough to feel comfortable with the college choice. This could be done on the phone, or in person. The single most important question to ask is, “How do you accommodate food allergies?” The goal of this open-ended question is to determine what procedures are in place for the staff, and what kind of support system is in place for the students. You might also ask:
  • Can special allergen-free meals be prepared? For example, if pasta is on the menu for tonight, can the student call ahead and ask for wheat-free pasta?
  • Can special foods be ordered? If your student has a favorite bread, cereal, or milk, that they can safely eat, will the college purchase them in bulk? Will they designate this food for your student?
  • If it’s a cash-based plan, will substitutions be allowed? For example, can a salad be substituted for the bread when purchasing a burger?

And, last but not least, if the student’s allergies are so severe that eating in a cafeteria is simply not an option, ask what special accommodations can be made. Are there dorm rooms with kitchens? Will they allow the student to opt out of the meal plan and cook in their room? Most campuses require on-site living for at least the first year – can an exception be made if there are no other choices?

Yes, there’s a lot to consider, but you will be really glad you did this legwork now, rather than waiting until after the decision is made. What additional questions or suggestions do you have for students making the college choice?


Rhonda said...

What a great article. You are a terrific resource for parents. I am going to share with with my Aunt as my nephew is going off to university in the Fall and I wonder if she has thought of all these things. Thanks Colette for your wisdom!

Colette said...

Thanks Rhonda! Yes, it's tough out there for those with food allergies at all ages.

Nicole Smith said...

Great article! The only additional item we've found with our wheat allergic daughter (and multiple other intolerances) is to be very careful about cross contamination. Kitchen staff need to be trained to not use the same spatula for all meals when a highly allergic student can react to even a small amount of allergen.

Colette said...

Ah Nicole -- really good point! Even the work surface where they are cranking out those wheat sandwiches needs to be cleaned before they pull out your special bread. I have to check with my son to see how his cafeteria handles this.

Anonymous said...

I have a daughter who has peanut and nut allergies. She is a sophomore in college. We have found a growing laxity in the food service as a year progresses. She has had 2 reactions this school year. The food service director needs to be reminded and inservices done especially at semester when student food service workers change. You have to be continually vigilant.

Colette said...

Anonymous, I'm really sorry to hear that. I'm curious - Is she at a large school or small school? Do they make their food in house, or outsource it?