When families send their children off to college, they want to make sure they are safe; but for students who suffer from food allergies, it can be perilous.
That’s the case for University of Colorado Boulder juniors Alyssa Goolsby and Eve-Amabelle Diby who both suffer from moderate to severe food allergies. In Goolsby’s case, these allergies can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. Goolsby and Diby are far from the only students at local colleges trying to navigate campus life with food restrictions.
A 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control found that 6.2% of adults in the U.S. have a food allergy. But allergy rates are rapidly climbing among college students, with one in six currently requiring nutrition accommodations in dining halls.
Gina Vega is a registered dietician who deals with student allergy needs across several colleges in Colorado, including Colorado School of Mines and CU Denver.
“We have students that have gotten sick or have just been muscling through the whole year trying to manage [their allergies], and they had no idea who to connect to,” said Vega.
Lisa Whalen, a registered dietician at CU Boulder whose duties parallel Vega’s, has seen a spike in food allergies and said several students wait to reach out until after their first semester.
“They’ve got food allergies and they’re telling me they can’t find anything and that they’re not eating enough,” Whalen said. “I feel like things were taken seriously before, and obviously food allergies were important, but I don’t think they were stressed as much as they are now.”
Physical symptoms are not the only struggle for college students with allergies. Their social lives can suffer as well.
“A lot of students don’t want to be excluded or isolated, because it’s a whole new way now of making friends and building relationships,” Vega said. “So, they sometimes like to keep [their allergies] to themselves, because they don’t want to be pigeonholed, [or feel like] they can’t be accepted. [That’s] what I see. It’s a sad thing.”
Diby has sensitivities to gluten, lactose and mushrooms. She has firsthand experience with the social and nutritional effects allergies can have on a college experience.
“At times I can’t really participate, like when there’s events going on [on campus], and they don’t have any gluten-free food or food that doesn’t contain milk,” said Diby. “I’ve just kind of adopted eating before I go to events because I know I’m probably not gonna be able to get anything real. And there are some times where, if I don’t bring lunch with me [to campus], I just know that I’m probably not going to eat that much.”
CU Boulder, CU Denver, and Colorado School of Mines all use labels in their dining halls that disclose the top nine allergens in dishes served. The schools also utilize apps like Nutrislice and the Everyday App, which include exhaustive ingredient lists, and Allertrain, a mandatory three-hour allergy information course for dining hall employees. But this is where the similarities in these schools’ allergen measures seem to end.
CU Boulder serves students a range of allergen-free foods in dining halls and cafes around campus. The school also houses Boulder’s only certified kosher restaurant and a dedicated wheat, gluten, peanut and tree nut-free dining hall called Libby on the Run.
School of Mines uses programs such as FARE and Simple Servings offered by Sodexo to provide and enforce dedicated allergen-free spaces in the main dining halls. CU Denver and Vega work almost exclusively on an individual basis with its students who require dietary accommodations. However, due to constraints in space and resources in CU Denver dining halls, Vega said it’s difficult to create allergen-free zones.
“Based on the landscape that they currently have at CU Denver, it’s really hard to create a food allergy zone, or an actual dedicated space [to avoid contamination],” said Vega. “The type of platform that they have right now is very limited. They can’t have a whole other stove, microwave, things like that, that are dedicated to that [allergy] population.”
At times, students at CU Denver with severe enough allergies may have to be exempt from the meal plan altogether, said Vega. Whalen echoed this sentiment and said that even with the allergy accommodation systems CU Boulder has, some severity or range of allergies simply cannot be accommodated in their dining hall settings. Cross-contamination still occurs in some areas, like the dessert and Asian food stations in the Center for Community dining hall.
Goolsby has anaphylactic reactions to eggs and shellfish. The diligent allergen measures taken at CU Boulder are a big reason she chose to attend the school.
“I know it sounds a little cheesy, but I was kind of nervous because I wasn’t a great cook when I moved away,” Goolsby said. “So, I really rely on the dining halls having food that I know isn’t going to endanger my life.”
But despite CU Boulder’s best attempts, Goolsby’s allergen experiences haven’t been foolproof.
“There have been a couple of times where, because it’s buffet style, the eggs will fall into the hashbrowns,” said Goolsby. “Therefore, I can’t eat the hashbrowns anymore. So that kind of sucks.”
Goolsby cited the Nutrislice app, a digital resource utilized by CU Boulder which contains exhaustive ingredient and nutrition info for each dish served, being very helpful; however, in Goolsby’s opinion, the app isn’t advertised to students as much as she thinks it should be.
Vega believes that a mandatory food allergy section should be included in college forms for freshmen and transfer students. But as of now, no such universal system exists, leaving students and their parents to advocate for their dietary needs without much administrative support. And, as several sources relayed, connecting those lines of communication is not always easy, comprehensive, or straightforward. The baseline takeaway: There is always room for improvement when it comes to allergen handling in college dining hall settings.
If you ask Diby’s advice to incoming college students with food allergies, her answer will be plain.
“Be prepared to make a lot of your own food.”