Friendship can be a Life-Saver to a Student with Food Allergies

Sep 8, 2015 12:15 PM ET

Beth Winthrop

Registered Dietitian and Wellness Director - Sodexo

With food allergies on the rise, and 15 million Americans allergic to one or more foods, chances are good that someone you work with, go to school with or are friends with will have a food allergy.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies are a growing food safety and public health concern that affects between 4 and 6 percent of young people in the U. S.  Allergic reactions can be life threatening and have far-reaching effects on the individual and their families, as well as the school, college or university they attend.  The Food Allergy Research and Education organization (FARE) has designed the “Be A PAL – Protect A Life from Food Allergies” campaign for younger children, but college students away from home and family for the first time have unique challenges and need even more support from their friends and fellow students.

In addition to being in a new environment, meeting new people and having new experiences, students entering college must also take responsibility for planning their meals and managing the day to day responsibilities of a food allergy including dining services, resident life, health services and emergency care. It can be overwhelming and somewhat intimidating.

If you have a roommate, friend or classmate with a food allergy, there are a lot of ways you can help.

  • Educate yourself about their allergy, what foods they need to avoid, and their medication. If your friend carries an auto-injector, learn how it works.  Ask if they remembered their epinephrine when you go out, just like you remind another friend to bring their ID or car keys.  Know what to do in case of emergency.
  • Be an advocate! People with food allergies get tired of asking for special things all the time.  Remind your resident assistant that a pizza party without any alternatives will exclude your friend with a dairy allergy.
  • Pay attention to cross-contact with allergens. If you share a refrigerator, counter space, or cooking equipment with a food allergic person, make sure everything is wrapped, clean, and that utensils or cutting boards don’t have traces of food allergens like nuts, milk or eggs.
  • Plan ahead! People with food allergies can’t be as spontaneous in their dining decisions.  They need to call ahead to check with restaurant managers, and may need to wait, or even go hungry if safe food isn’t available for them.  Try to allow enough time for a meal so that even if your friend has to wait, you can wait along with them rather than making them eat alone.
  • A little planning can make social events safer and more welcoming for people with food allergies. Plain options that can be combined such as green salad, rice noodles, grilled chicken, and dressing on the side make it easier for food allergic people to avoid what will make them sick.  Mixed dishes can be frightening.
  • Food allergies are not funny and in fact, they can be life-threatening. Imagine what it would be like to be fearful of every mouthful.  Take a stand to prevent pranks or bullying.
  • Simple hygiene is also important. Wash your hands after eating that peanut butter sandwich and brush your teeth as well if your food allergic friend might be someone you’d like to kiss!
  • Get the word out! Make food allergies a topic in your public speaking class, join a student support group on campus or Facebook, or form a team for a FARE walk this fall.

Attending a school with a supportive food allergy environment and having friends and classmates that understand and provide support can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and fulfilling college experience.  Thank you for being a “friend in need!”

Beth Winthrop is a registered dietitian and wellness director for Sodexo. She developed Sodexo’s award-winning Simple Servings; the allergen-safe resident dining program.

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