Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Over The College Barrel

Six colleges. Six different types of campuses. Six different approaches to communal dining. And what did all of them have in common?

Cluenessness. Utter, complete cluelessness.

I had been feeling pretty good about college. Our high school counselor said "they deal with this stuff all the time, it will work out." The college admissions officers we've met at the various college fairs said "oh, yeah, food allergies are common! They make tons of accommodations!" The parents on College Confidential said "it's totally different than when we went to school and everyone ate the same thing."

This was the first time we had really sat down with food service at any of these schools. The first time we had tried to actually eat lunch during a tour. And guess what? CLUELESS!

It started with the admissions office calls. "Well," said the woman on the other end of the phone, "it looks like we're having barbeque chicken that day. Would that work for your son?"

I don't know. Would it? What are the ingredients? Did your kitchen staff use good cross-contamination protocols? Can you guarantee they followed the recipe, instead of throwing an extra dollop of butter in at the end to make it all look glossy? And, if he does have a reaction, is there anyone there to help? Will his cell phone even be able to access 911 there, assuming he's in good enough shape to dial?

I didn't say that, however. I'm infinitely aware that my son is not a catch when it comes to college admissions. He doesn't have a 4.0. He's not an athlete. There are no "hooks" to get him in the door, like us donating a library. They don't need one more reason not to admit him and the typical holistic approach to admissions at most colleges ensures that the kid with the mother who calls and badgers about food service is going to get a flag on his file.

So, we asked to talk or meet directly with food service on campus. Their responses were equally startling and horrifying.

"So your child has a gluten allergy, you say? We have a lot of gluten allergic kids on campus now." I gently remind him that gluten intolerance and food allergies are very different creatures, with only one having the possible outcome of quick death. "Oh, like a peanut allergy," was the response. "We only have a couple kids with those kind of allergies and they're all peanut. Those kids just have to learn what they can't eat."

When I told him about the MILK allergy, his eyes glazed over. "Well, I guess there's the salad bar." My husband went over to take a look. When he returned, he said "the fruit would be totally off limits all the time - there's yogurt everywhere. Even the lettuce looks like it may have sprinkle cheese in it." The three of us stared at each other.

"I guess we can go through the recipe books and see if there's going to be anything safe for him, but just about everything we make has milk in it," says the food service guy.

"You do understand that there are a TON of kids just like my son coming right behind him, right? You know that 1993-95 seems to be the start of this uptick in food allergies? That there are a couple kids in every kindergarten class now?"

"Yeah, we talked about it at a conference this year," he said. "We know it's coming. I guess I felt better because even the big schools don't know how they're going to deal with it yet. We have to figure it out, but we just don't know how to do it. How do you control the food to that degree when you're dealing with so many kids and so many allergies?"

One big campus we checked out on-line had this to say:

Because of the number of meals served and the number of items used each day, along with food product changes by our food vendor, it is nearly impossible to identify and label every allergen in the food that is being served.  There is also the possibility that manufacturers of the commercial foods we use could change the formulation at any time, without notice.  Customers concerned with food allergies need to be aware of this risk.  [Happy Shiny School] cannot assume any liability for adverse reactions to food consumed, or items one may come in contact with while eating at any University Dining facility or catered event.

In other words, we can't guarantee you're not going to die...but pay up for the food service plan anyway.

I'm lost. It feels like the start of kindergarten all over again except, unlike kindergarten, they don't have to take my kid. They don't have to learn. They don't have to accommodate. If I had any doubts that my child is moving into "the real world", this experience clarified things for me. The power is all on their side.

One thing I have learned is that there's no point — and even potentially great harm — in doing a thorough exploration of food service before we have an admittance in hand. I'm going to have to put all my anxieties in a little box for another year and just hope we can make the best of things wherever he gets admitted. There's always the community college option or commuting to a local school, although I really wanted the freshman dorm experience for him specifically because he's been so sheltered.

And who knows. Perhaps this clinical trial will succeed beyond our wildest dreams and all his allergies will be magically gone by the end of the summer.

One thing's for sure - it would give him a damn good topic for a college essay.

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  1. Oh man! I am a new reader here but I LOVE your blog! Some of your posts I would swear you were in my head to write them. My son is 4.5 with dairy, egg and peanut allergies. I dread what each year holds. I feel like it has already been so difficult, I can't even begin to process what the future holds or I get anxiety attacks! But a thank you from those of us in the early years of food allergies to those of you at the forefront who have had to truly lead the movement and forge the way for those of us still coming up behind.

  2. Glad you found me, Haley! But please don't let my blog stress you out. It's good to only look a couple of steps ahead at a time or it does get overwhelming. (I'm chanting the same advice to myself as we approach the college thing...)

  3. I recommend talking to Lynda and others at Kids with food allergies. She and others there have had good experiences at various colleges. I can't believe those you visited were so horrible. They really HAVE to accommodate if they are state schools so you could always wait until he is in and then press the issue then. Several of the kids I have read about have had the cafeteria staff work with them ahead of time weekly or monthly to choose what they will have and their food is prepared in a separate, connected kitchen to ensure no x-contam. These include kids with milk allergy. Thank you for helping pave the way for the rest of us. I'm sorry you have to deal with this. You are making a big difference for others. Even what you did so far by raising those questions to cafeteria staff is going to help others.

  4. Thanks, GG! I have hung out at KWFA over the years. Unfortunately, this is a journey that most parents of older children travel alone, because there are thousands of colleges out there and no one parents can vet all of them. FAAN does have a college area - it's just not populated enough yet to be helpful.

    We're going to have him apply to schools, get the list down to a couple where he's admitted and then go all-out about figuring out a way to make it work. You have to remember...even if they "have" to have accommodations, those accommodations can be very limited. One (public) school we saw considered it enough to have a chicken breast and a hamburger available at every meal. They are not obligated to remake *any* meal to be safe.

  5. Just stumbled across your blog, so to speak, and I feel your pain. My 17-year-old, off to college in this fall, is deathly allergic to milk and dairy. Very generally speaking, we found that schools are increasingly aware of peanut and gluten allergies, but think that milk allergy=lactose intolerance. (Um, NO.)

    You are absolutely right to see where he gets in and then see who is accommodating. Again, I would generalize by saying that the smaller the dining hall, the better chance that he will be well taken care of. Our son survived summer programs on two different college campuses; in both cases, we did a LOT of communicating, both via email and in person, and he really got to know the managers there. It makes a world of difference, both in terms of safety and in terms of the kid's confidence. Still, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, college eating will require "Constant Vigilance"! Good luck to you.

  6. Boston College is awesome with food allergies!!! My son has a milk allergy and they make all safe food for him. They have a grill in each dining hall that is dairy free - always. He can call ahead and order something specific or just walk in and talk directly to the chef or any food worker and they totally get it! The campus police responds quickly for his other issue (idiopathic exercise induced asthma). The first year we asked for housing close to the Health Center. Now he lives with 9 guys in a suite who all work together to keep my 20 year old safe. The only issue I have is that it is 400 miles away from me ;(

    Did your son chose a college?

    1. Hi- I have no idea if you will see this question since I am writing it almost 1 1/2 years after your response but...

      my son is heading to BC in the fall. He is a class 5 peanut/tree nut allergy. They did a special test last year that confirmed that he will go into anaphylaxis if exposed . The dining services people have been awesome and so very helpful. Can't say the same for Res life. I, too, requested that he live in a dorm that is close to the health center and I submitted many pages of medical history and three doctor's notes. We were denied a guaranteed dorm near the health center so I was just wondering if they honored it when you asked. He hasn't received his housing placement yet so I am just praying that they place him up there anyway.

    2. Anonymous, my son ended up staying at home after I wrote this. He is finishing an AA at a local community college.

      I have heard mixed stories on dorm requests for medical reasons. You should know that a lot of parents use these types of requests to get better dorm accommodation, so I'm sure colleges are hesitant to grant them. Can you involve another college officer, perhaps someone in their health center, to advocate for you?

      Try to take a deep breath! My sister is a diabetic and she went to BC without incident. They were very supportive. The reality is that, in the event of a reaction, your son will call 911, so perhaps proximity to the health center is something you can let go of if you can't arrange it in the end.

      College is hard! I hope you guys have an easy transition.

  7. My son is still working on it. He's going to leave it until the last possible moment. :)

    My sister went to BC though and loved it! Glad it's working for you guys.


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