Dining services worker scooping food.

How to Navigate College With Food Allergies

March 1, 2021

by Matt Hughes

If you're allergic to tree nuts, shellfish, gluten or one of dozens more common allergens, you know how challenging life with food allergies can be. As you prepare to head off to college, things could get even more complex. But like most things in life, if you're prepared, you can do it, and eventually it will feel like no big deal. College is just the next step in living an independent life with allergies.

Read the guide below for tips about what to do now and after you arrive at school to help you navigate college with food allergies.

To make this guide easier to follow, we've broken it down into three steps:

  • Finding the right college
  • Preparing for college
  • Navigating life at college

Read on to learn what you can do each step of the way.

Finding the Right College

Colleges come in all shapes and sizes, and every one approaches housing, dining and accommodation procedures a little differently. A college near your home, for instance, might allow you to commute to school, while others will require you to live on campus anywhere from one to four years, and require a disability accommodation to be exempted from this requirement. (At Bucknell, we do require most students to live on campus for four years, but accommodations including single rooms and air conditioning are available for students who qualify).

Students with significant food allergies can and do live on campus, but how easy or challenging that is depends on individual circumstances and how accommodating the school will be to their specific needs.

A good place to start is to look for the college's disability or accessibility office to see what sort of accommodations are available. The college's dining website may also have information about allergy labeling, staff training/allergen handling and other important points.

But the best way to learn about a college and get the specific answers you need is to visit.

Some questions you might want to ask during a campus tour or other visit include:

  • What allergy friendly or special food options (gluten free, vegan, etc.) are served in dining halls? Are these options available at every meal?
  • Are made-to-order meals available in dining halls?
  • Are the cafeteria workers trained in allergy-safe food handling?
  • Are there designated allergen-free zones in dining halls?
  • Are ingredients and/or potential allergens listed on dining hall menus?
  • Is food/eating allowed in classrooms?
  • Is there a grocery store nearby that's accessible by walking or public/campus transportation?
  • Is there a pharmacy on campus or nearby that's accessible by walking or public/campus transportation?
  • Are all residence hall rooms air-conditioned? What accommodation forms are needed to guarantee placement in an air-conditioned room?
  • Who responds to 911 or emergency calls on campus? Do they carry EpiPen auto-injectors?
  • Are resident advisers trained to respond to allergy-related emergencies?

Keep in mind that the student or admissions counselor leading the tour may not have all the answers to your questions, but someone on campus does. Before you go, do your homework online or call to learn who to contact for more specific details about housing, dining and disability accommodations — again, the college's disability or accessibility office is usually the best place to start. You may even be able to schedule a meeting for the day of your visit.

If you aren't sure or can't find who to contact, you can also always email or call the admissions office, which will be happy to direct your question to the right place.

You should also start thinking now about what accommodations you might need to live and eat safely on campus. A few things to keep in mind and discuss with campus housing, dining and accessibility offices include:

  • Can you have a roommate or do you need to request a single-person room?
  • Can you safely eat in dining halls without worrying about cross-contamination?
  • Will you need your own microwave or kitchen to prepare food in your room? 
  • Will you need to live in an air-conditioned room due to a respiratory condition?

Preparing for College

Until now, you've probably eaten most meals at home, where it's easy to avoid your allergy triggers. In school, you may have packed a lunch from home or always known which school options were safe for you to eat. If you need to carry an EpiPen, you could probably rest assured that a teacher or school nurse would be ready and trained to use it in an emergency, and that a backup would always be available in the nurse's office if you ever needed it.

In college, you can't necessarily take all of these factors for granted, so you'll want to start making a plan for living and eating on campus as soon as you know where you'll be going to school. Here are some tips to think about as you're getting ready.

Epipen and Medication Refills

If you carry an EpiPen or require other prescriptions, make sure you refill them before you go off to college and bring adequate backups with you. Your college's health center should be able to connect you with a local doctor who can write new prescriptions and may even have one on staff, but it could take a while to get in to see someone. Plus you'll want to spend your first few weeks exploring your new campus, making friends and settling into your classes — not worrying about prescriptions and health care needs. It's best to come prepared. Be sure to check the expiration dates on your current supply to make sure they'll last at least through your first semester.

Housing Accommodations

Your college should work with you to meet any specific needs for campus housing, such as your own food-preparation space or a single room, but you'll need to provide evidence of why you need these accommodations.

Generally, you'll begin with a request through your college's disability or accessibility office. Bucknell's process begins with you submitting a form and supporting documents from your doctor, allergist or similarly qualified professional that describes how a housing accommodation supports your medical or disability needs. You can learn about this process in detail here.

You'll typically need to make this request well before you arrive on campus. At Bucknell, the deadline for first-year students to request a housing accommodation is in June. And of course it will take time for you to gather the medical documentation you'll need as well, so it's best to start exploring your options and gathering evidence as soon as you can.

Even if you don't request an accommodation, you can still make your college aware of your needs. Typically colleges will assign you a roommate or roommates for your first year, and they may give you a chance to state your preferences before your roommate is assigned. At Bucknell, you'll be sent a housing questionnaire shortly after you enroll.

Every college is different, but they'll typically ask about topics like whether you're an early riser or a night owl and if you prefer options like substance-free housing. Use this opportunity to inform your college's housing office about your allergies. If they don't send you a questionnaire or it doesn't provide a place to tell them about your allergies, you can also email or call the housing office directly. You'll want to do this early on in the process, since it's much easier for them to place you in the right place initially than it is to change your assignment later.

Dining Accommodations

The same goes for any dining accommodations you may need. Most colleges will require you to purchase a meal plan and eat meals on campus for at least your first year. You'll need to figure out whether the food they offer can meet your nutritional and allergy needs, which is why it's important to ask good questions and check out a dining hall for yourself during your campus visit. If they can't, you may need to request an accommodation.

Begin by checking your college's dining website to see what sort of allergen-free options are available, and whether they're available in every dining hall or only in specific venues.

At Bucknell, all on-campus dining selections are labeled with icons representing 11 major allergens and indicating whether a dish is gluten friendly, vegan or vegetarian. And you can search daily menus and filter options by common allergens using our EatWell online tool. Our main all-you-care-to-eat dining hall, Bostwick Marketplace, also has a special station for students with dietary needs that can't be met at other stations, located far enough from other serving areas to minimize cross-contamination. All sit-down dining venues also have specially labeled allergy-free tables.

If you don't think the options your college offers go far enough to meet your needs and want to be exempted from buying a meal plan, you may need to request a disability accommodation.

At Bucknell, this process begins with you scheduling a meeting with a Dining Services staff member, who will walk you through exactly what dining options you'll have and help you determine whether your needs can be met by our standard dining options.

If, after that meeting, you decide you want to request an accommodation, you'll need to fill out an online form to make the request. Just like with housing, making this request requires you to provide evidence of your need for an accommodation, such as a detailed description of your condition from your doctor or allergist and a medical history summary. Gathering these documents will take time, and it will also take the school time to review them and determine if you qualify for an accommodation, so it's best to start preparing early.

You'll encounter a similar process at almost any college or university that requires you to purchase a meal plan. If you think you'll need such an accommodation, you can save yourself time later by starting to gather evidence even before you enroll.

Your Own Food and Snacks

Whether or not you're able to eat in the dining halls (and regardless of how delicious or unpalatable the options there may be) you're going to want to eat other food sometimes. If there are special snacks or ingredients you crave, like nut-free peanut butter or gluten-free munchies, make sure to pack enough to get you through at least your first few weeks on campus.

Keep in mind that every grocery store or specialty shop might not carry exactly what you're looking for, and that grocery selections on campus may be limited. On the day of your campus tour or during a follow-up visit (like an admitted students open house) carve out some time to visit shops nearby and get a sense of what you'll be able to buy at school and what you'll want to bring from home.

Navigating Life at College

 

If you've done all of the steps above, you should be well on your way to confidently navigating your new college life. Your most important next steps involve making sure those around you are aware of your needs and will be ready to respond in case of an emergency.

Roommates and RAs

If you'll have a first-year roommate, your college will often provide you their contact information so you can get in touch before you arrive.

It's best to tell them about any allergens you can't have in your room as soon as you get in touch so they don't bring anything with them that you're allergic to. How important this is may depend on your individual allergy — while it's unlikely they'll cook a scallop dinner in your room's microwave, it's conceivable that they might bring a bag of peanuts or pistachios to snack on. If you can't be around those foods, it's only fair that you inform them before they start packing.

If you need to carry an EpiPen, you'll also want to make sure they know where you keep it in case of an emergency. Plan to always keep it in the same place when you're in your room, and always take it with you when you leave.

You'll want to have a similar conversation with your resident adviser. Ask about what they've been trained to do in an emergency, and make sure they know where you keep your EpiPen as well.

Emergency Numbers

You'll also want to figure out who to call in an emergency. While 911 will always help, most colleges have a campus safety or police force right on campus that may be able to respond more quickly and can access your room even if the door is locked. Find out what their emergency number is and talk to your RA about which number would be best to call if you experience anaphylaxis, or if someone else needs to call on your behalf.

Make a plan with your roommate and RA so you're all on the same page about what to do if you ever need help.

Taking Your Pen With You

If you need an EpiPen, it goes without saying that you need to keep it with you whenever you go outside your room. Just like you'll always want to take a pen to class to take notes, you'll want to bring your EpiPen along in case of emergency — the only difference is you can't borrow an EpiPen from a classmate if you forget.

We don't need to tell you this, but it still bears repeating. In high school you could probably rely on the school nurse's office having a backup. While your college's health center and campus safety officers might have a supply too, remember that a college campus will almost certainly be a much larger, spread-out place than your high school, meaning it could take longer for someone to get to you in an emergency. So it's best to always have it on you and let your friends know that you carry it.

If you live on campus, you'll have a room key that you'll need to take with you whenever you leave your room. It's a good idea to keep your EpiPen in the same place as your keys. Be consistent about where you keep it and make sure your roommate knows where that is.

Dining

By the time you arrive you should have a sense of where you'll be able to eat on campus and how the college handles allergen labeling. Now, it's time to figure out how that all works in practice.

You'll want to learn how food is labeled, where special allergy-free serving stations might be located, and whether there are allergen-free eating spaces.

What and where you can eat will be unique to each school, but your college should have resources to help you figure it out. At Bucknell, one helpful way we'll help you navigate your options is with an app. The EatWell online nutrition tool posts daily menu options and allows you to filter menu options by allergens. You can also view nutrition information for individual items or an entire meal you build yourself.

Bucknell Student Health offers a variety of nutrition resources for students, including individual counseling with our staff nutritionist.

If your allergy is the sort where even being around someone eating an allergen could cause anaphylaxis, you should also talk to your professors at the start of each semester and ask that they mandate a no-eating-in-class policy. Most will be happy to accommodate, and you'll often find many already have this policy — no one wants to lecture to someone who's stuffing their face with a sandwich.

Wrapping Up

Adjusting to any new change in life is challenging, and going away to college is no different. Having allergies just adds another wrinkle to the mix. But you've made it this far, and with the right preparation and precautions, you can successfully navigate college life with food allergies, just like millions of others have done before.

If you'd like to learn more about life at Bucknell and how we can meet your needs, we suggest you start by contacting our admissions office at 570-577-2003 or admissions@bucknell.edu.


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