College Bound with Food Allergies: Tips
If you’ve done your job — empowering your child with food allergies with the responsibility to manage them — then food allergies won’t be an added stressor as your teen settles in at college. Learn more...
The number of children born with food allergies began surging in the early 2000’s. These children, now in their late teens, are finishing high school and heading to college.
As a parent, beyond worrying about your teen finding their way through the college application maze, you will worry about their wellbeing when they head to campus. You will hope you’ve equipped them with decision-making skills that will anchor them, guide their intellectual, social and emotional growth, and above all, keep them safe.
Caroline is well known and highly respected throughout the food allergy community for her food allergy and asthma expertise and advocacy. Beyond her work as Founder of the Grateful Foodie blog, she has worked tirelessly as a Food Allergy & Asthma advocate at local, state, and national levels. She is Vice President of Community Relations for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT), and was the creative force behind FAACT's comprehensive College Resource Center. She has also helped The Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR) build awareness for CFAAR’s important research through social media.
Caroline’s two children have severe allergies to multiple foods and asthma. Entering college in 2016, her son successfully managed life-threatening peanut, tree nut and sesame allergies, on top of severe asthma, throughout his 4-year college experience. Her daughter, also with food allergies, is currently a college sophomore.
“If you’ve done your job, food allergies won’t be an added stressor as your teen settles in at college.”
Caroline’s family started preparing for the transition to college well before their son ever began his college research. Caroline suggests that, “as food allergy parents you have to start backing off early in the teen years. You have to teach your teen how to handle the unexpected, solo.”
Think about it.
Can your teen read ingredient labels at the grocery store and figure out if something is safe to eat, or not?
Do they know where to find the precautionary allergen labelling on food product ingredients lists — like ‘May Contain’, ‘Manufactured on the same equipment’, or ‘Manufactured in the same facility’ — and how your family uses that information when determining if a food product is safe to eat?
Can they ‘own’ the restaurant explanation, start to finish, and trouble shoot as their meal is served?
Can they do their laundry?
Are they aware that body soaps, lotions and shampoos could contain their allergens? Can they sanitize a bathroom, especially a shared bathroom, where previous users might have used products containing their allergens?
Do they know how to make a doctor’s appointment and fill a prescription at a Pharmacy?
Do they know what an allergic reaction looks like and exactly what to do if they eat the wrong thing?
Whether your college student is at home or far away, the unexpected will happen. “To the extent you can anticipate situations and give your teen real time practice handling allergy ups and downs before they head to college,” Caroline explains, “the better they’ll cope with all the new and added pressures of college.”
Caroline offers some tips for parents of college-bound teens:
1. Transition responsibility for managing food allergies gradually, over time to your teen.
Don’t start the allergy management handoff the summer your teen’s shopping for their dorm room and packing their bags. It’s too much to take on all at once. Taking full responsibility for managing their food allergies should be taught to teens gradually, over time (i.e., over years.)
2. Help your teen get comfortable talking to adults.
A large part of taking responsibility for food allergies is the ability to self-advocate – it’s all about talking to adults, finding allies, building mature relationships. This is especially important if your teen is on the shy side. This skill should also be nurtured gradually, over time.
3. Cast a wide net — don’t limit college options from the outset because of food allergies.
Food allergies should not define your teen’s college experience. Food allergies should be a consideration when targeting schools, but not a major limiting factor.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate with the schools your teen’s been admitted to.
The time to find out exactly how disability services, housing and food services will work for your Freshman is when your teen’s college acceptances start rolling in. Every school is different. Admissions should be able to help you find the right people to speak with in the disability office, housing, and food services. Start with disability services and then work your way through housing and food services. It’s important to note names and contact information and keep track of it.
5. Communicate, communicate, communicate with the school your teen commits to.
Once your teen commits to a school, begin working with the school to nail down accommodations. “The disability office at my son’s college wanted letters from his allergist documenting his allergies & asthma, and his need for accommodations,“ recalls Caroline. “We then discussed the specific accommodations that would help him stay safe and thrive, like a single room and having a fridge & microwave in his room.”
6. Over the summer deepen the conversation with the food services team.
Invest time and effort to speak with the food services decision-maker and team before your Freshman arrives on campus. This process takes time but will be time well spent. You may need to help your teen get the conversation started with the food services decision-maker. Then gradually pull back and transition the conversation more fully to your Freshman to drive. As soon as you can, you will want to go behind the scenes, meet the entire team, and begin building relationships. The current Covid environment and the widespread ability to connect face-to-face remotely may make it easier than ever to have these initial conversations that will jumpstart building key relationships before your Freshman is on campus.
7. Brainstorm snack food sourcing alternatives before your Freshman arrives on campus.
Have a game plan, like bookmarking links for ordering safe snacks on Amazon Prime or mapping out where the nearest food store is relative to campus. Figure out how your Freshman can reach nearby food stores, whether by walking, grabbing a Lyft, biking it, or borrowing a car.
8. Encourage your Freshman to communicate, communicate, communicate with new friends and professors.
Encourage your teen to be open about their food allergies after arriving on campus — to tell their RA, their roommate, and their new friends about their allergies, about carrying epinephrine and where they keep their auto injector and emergency plan in their room. Friends won’t want to NOT know. Encourage your teen to speak privately to their professors, even if the school has also promised to do this on their behalf.
9. Stay flexible.
If your Freshman packs anything for college — beyond a laptop, their auto injector and emergency action plan — encourage them to pack a flexible attitude. School policies and procedures are not set-in stone. People come. People go. Roommate disasters happen. Needs change. Lessons learned are forgotten. Life just happens. Allergy experiences — both good and bad (hopefully not too bad) — make your Freshman more world-wise, more cautious. Mom, Dad…Stay calm. Carry on.
10. Reach out to allergy families in the area and build a local support network.
There are things you can do behind the scenes to support your Freshman. For example, find a No Nuts Moms Group (NNMG) or another food allergy support group near the college. Groups like this can recommend local allergists or suggest nearby food stores that stay open late. People you connect with might even offer to be there for your teen in an allergy emergency when you can’t be.
11. Show Gratitude.
The people who feed your child will care deeply about your child’s wellbeing.
Food allergies or not, college can and should be a time for growth and learning as teens continue their journey of self-discovery. By approaching the college years with eyes wide open, gathering information, planning ahead, communicating your needs, and forging positive relationships with key people on campus, it will be.
Caroline, thank you for all you do for the food allergy community and for sharing some of the wisdom you’ve gained from over two decades of parenting and successfully launching two kids to college.
The Allergy Force Changemaker Series shines a light on movers and shakers in the food allergy community who drive change and make a positive difference for the entire community.
Image Credit: Thank you to Caroline Moassessi, Founder of Grateful Foodie, for use of the images