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Preparing Your Food-allergic Teenager for College
College is scary enough without food allergies. Many of us choose to move far away in pursuit of our dreams, and thatís enough of a shock for most freshmen. But those with food allergies have it harder. Most of us arenít used to managing our allergy on our own, let alone the red tape that you run into at universities.
I have fructose malabsorption, which basically means that Iím missing the path-ways to digest certain kinds of foods high in fructose. Fructose malabsorption is not an immediate threat ó other than cramps and bloating ó but it most likely does have serious long-term consequences. So, much like food allergies, avoidance is key, and it has to be managed correctly, which was a challenge when I moved from Ohio to Oklahoma for college.
I found early on that I had to work with my college in a cooperative process to make sure I could take care of my dietary needs adequately. At first, the college didnít want to make special provisions for me.
In my case, freshmen were required to live in the dorms for their first year, but the food services department couldnít accommodate my needs. They offered me a meal-plan exemption but wanted me to live in the dorm and share a communal kitchen with fifty other students. I knew this wouldnít work, but it took three months to obtain a housing exemption. In the end, we used my good academic record as leverage and wrote letters to the deans of my colleges ó I am double-majoring in architectural engineering and meteorology ó and to the president of the university.
As a compromise, I lived in an apartment on campus. In reality, this was probably the best I could have hoped for, because I was able to stay in control of my diet. I have to drive 20 miles every month to the nearest health food store, but Iíd rather do that and know for sure that Iím not going to get sick than take the gamble of eating at the school cafeteria.
So my advice to college freshmen is to prepare early. As you begin to look at colleges and degree programs, take a look at food services. Look for a college that is willing to help you with your problems from the beginning Ė then there is a good chance the college will likely to help you later down the road as well. Another good indicator is when you find a food service representative that also has a food allergy. Itís very comforting to talk to someone who understands.
If eating in the cafeteria is not a viable option for you, see if you can obtain a housing exemption so you can live in an apartment with a kitchen. It's not hard to learn to cook and plan your own meals to manage your own diet.
You might also have to work out other exemptions: not only do many universities require freshmen to live in the dorms, many also donít permit freshmen to have cars on campus, which you might need in order to go buy groceries. If you need an exemption to the dorm rule, donít worry about missing out on the "dorm experience". Who really wants to be woken up at 2 a.m. by the fire alarm anyway? You donít need to live in a dorm to make friends. I met my two best friends ó who are now also my roommates ó on the bus on the way to opening ceremonies.
My friends have caught on to my allergy fast and look at it as a challenge to be able to find something I can eat. They often read the ingredients and check food before handing it to me for the final approval. I can actually trust my roommates with the grocery shopping, though I still double-check everything.
All in all, my first year of college was a lot of fun. After we worked through the red tape and I got settled in, everything was easy enough. I learned a lot about cooking and about my own allergy, and even how to work through the "system". Some of the most important things you learn at college arenít learned in the classroom.
Shannon is a college sophomore pursuing a dual degree in architectural engineering and meteorology. One day she hopes to design buildings to withstand storm damage, but until then sheíll keep sketching, volunteering at the local no-kill animal shelter, and hanging out at the lake with friends.
Updated August 2008. This article first appeared in the Fall 2006 edition of Support Net™ and is available to download (requires Adobe Reader .)