Almost nothing is more terrifying that being in an open and potentially uncontrollable place when you have a food allergy. This is a sentiment that I think about every time I step foot onto the university campus that I attend for Graduate School. I spent about 15 years (on and off) finishing my undergraduate degree on the same university campus. Whenever I can, I take it upon myself to let people around me know that I’m allergic to peanuts. This semester I sent out an email to everyone in my class explaining my situation. To my surprise, there was another student in the class who also had allergies and has an epi-pen. They said that they would always be there for me in an emergency. Talk about a humbling moment! I’m so used to people making fun of me for my food allergy, ignoring me, or saying “What do you want me to do about it?!”. It was impressive. And since that email, the student asks me if whatever snack they bring to class is ok to eat in front of me. They don’t have to do that, but the level of consideration and concern that I’m given is really beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced. I can feel safe in that class.
Having “safe zones” on campus where I can go is very comforting. I don’t feel like my life is constantly in danger every time I need to be on campus. But the fact is, there really are no safe zones on campus. At any given moment, a person (most likely a student) is walking around eating some sort of peanut item. I recall a time when I needed to leave the library and walk over to another building for class. A student was standing in the doorway (my only way to exit), eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and holding a conversation with a group of people. I was terrified. I had no way out. I had to hold my breath until they all realized what they were doing, and moved out of my way.
One of the most frustrating situations for me is trying to eat on campus. Any potential healthy options are cost prohibitive (even full time faculty members have told me that the prices of food on campus are excessive). Buying food ala carte can easily run you $10 or more per meal, and buying a meal plan is a waste not only because of the cost involved, but also because it’s hardly possible to eat that much food in a semester. This leads to another problem – any dollar amount left over on the meal plan at the end of the semester is completely lost because there’s no roll-over option. At one point I even spoke with the chef on campus. He was informative, understanding, and in the moment I felt like my point of view was really being considered. Improvements were made on campus regarding the amount of healthy options and the variety of healthy options. The only thing that the chef pointed out was that while the university doesn’t use peanuts because of the risk to those allergic, they did have peanut butter in the salad bar of the main dining hall because the athletes would be upset if they didn’t. Now the salad bar is no longer an option for me because of possible cross contamination. My next option is trying to eat something that pre-packaged. All of the pre-packaged food provided by the food vendor is labeled with a cross-containment warned. I can’t even have the fruit salad! The vast majority of snack foods (especially the healthy options) like pretzels, nutrition bars, chocolate, fruit chews … all have the same cross-contamination warning labels on them. I would guesstimate that less than 5% of the healthy options I can eat are safe. The part that baffles me is that there’s so much variety of pre-packaged and snack foods on campus, yet there’s so few allergy free and/or allergy friendly options.
I realize that the food vendor is partially responsible for these issues. However, the university is supposed to be a safe haven. The university is supposed to protect all its students, faculty, and staff. I feel like in the moment, I’m pacified. Each person points to the others, with nothing really being resolved. I’m still hopeful that someone will come to the table with viable options. Maybe it takes policy changes, I don’t know. Since the moment I first brought this topic to the attention of the appropriate people, I have continued to offer my help. That offer still stands, and will long after I graduate. The issue of food allergies is not going away any time soon. The best thing that we can do is adapt to the process of dealing with it all. The university is not alone, but I feel as though I am.
I strongly encourage my readers to check out Food Allergy Research & Education for more information about food allergies as well as the latest developments on the topic. If you would like to discuss this with me further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via the contact page on this site or the various social media platforms that I participate in.