To start things off, I want to give my #1 tip for severely food allergic individuals going to work, school, or college:
Attend an institution that treats you like a person, not a number.
I’ve found that smaller environments are able to hold up their end of a food allergy accommodation much better. The bigger the corporation/school/university, the more people being controlled, and the larger margin of error.
I hope this post will allow parents of allergic children some peace of mind as they approach joining the workforce and/or attending school or college. Living with a severe & airborne food allergy is scary and a constant worry, but it can often be accommodated in the real world with a little groundwork! Of course, that is the tricky part of living with what I like to call an “invisible disability”, because unless I tell someone, no one will know I have it.
I attended a semester of college at Indiana University Southeast right after High School and knew shortly after it was not something I was ready to take seriously for the amount of money I was paying. I worked during High School at a restaurant near my house as a hostess and giftshop retail employee– anyone remember Lynn’s Paradise Cafe and the World of Swirl? If so, you probably saw me from years 2015-2018! At the restaurant I was able to avoid peanuts, there was only one pancake dish that used peanut butter and hardly anyone ever ordered it, and at the time I felt comfortable just avoiding it if I saw it. Plus, I was up far away from the food most of the time.
Once I turned 18, I got a corporate job at a health insurance subrogation company that was larger but pretty divided up into separate spaces for each department. There, they allowed peanuts to be eaten in the building but in my department area they let me ask people to not bring or eat peanuts at their desks, and I ate my lunch at my desk, and would go into the breakroom as little as possible. It was harder to control there, but if I saw someone eating peanuts I would hold my breath and get away. Basically everyone there knew I had my peanut allergy so they weren’t offended and don’t recall ever having a reaction there, but I took my own precautions for sure and wiped things down and avoided most of the building.
I went back to college a few years later and started off as an Art major at the Kentucky School of Art connected to Spalding University. I would have the instructors make an announcement to the class, and the class sizes were small (15-20 students max) and easy to ensure there weren’t peanuts being brought in. My second semester, I took an Art History course that opened my eyes and changed my life. This single class, my only A+ ever, led me to become an Art History major at the University of Louisville, since Spalding didn’t offer an Art History degree path.
However, upon getting started at UofL, I immediately knew it was a bad fit due to my allergy.
It was a large university, and I had no control in packed hallways with snacks for sale, or lecture rooms of 200+ students. My first day of class, I couldn’t ride the required shuttle that they made Freshman/Sophomores use to shuttle us from the parking lot of the stadium to the campus because someone next to me opened a bag of peanuts and I held my breath and ran to the other end of the bus, getting off at the next stop about mile away from where I needed to be. For a brief moment I thought maybe it would be possible since there was a “no food allowed” sign on the bus, but I quickly learned that wasn’t enforced at all, and I noticed even the bus driver ate!
I tried riding it for weeks, and my anxiety was through the roof. As soon as someone would inevitably open a snickers or other peanut snack, I’d have to ring the bell and fight my way off, just to be stranded far from my car and from my class. I tried to get a parking pass that juniors and seniors had access to, and it wasn’t approved, so I just parked in the nearest neighborhood to campus- it was cheaper anyway (although I didn’t get a refund for my barely used parking pass.)
I reached out to my professors to see if they would make an announcement to not eat peanut products in the classroom, and if they didn’t feel comfortable, I’d ask if I could make this announcement myself. All the instructors either made the announcement or let me make one, but it was clear afterwards that no one was going to listen. One example that stands out was in my French class. I recall catching up with a mother of a student who attended my small High School with me. Despite this connection, every class she would place a peanut butter sandwich behind me on her desk in a Ziploc bag. I let her know I would have to leave if she ate it, and often she would eat it anyway.
It left me baffled! I knew her daughter and we talked about the severity of my peanut allergy, but somehow she never switched to another sandwich or felt she was doing any harm. I explained over and over, clearly and concise, and she would be really polite and understanding, but then eat it. I would make eye contact with the instructor and signal that I was leaving because of the sandwich, and then I’d have to reach out to the instructor to find out what I missed and how I could make it up.
I began sitting far away from her, and trying to actively give her signals that her actions were causing me a lot of problems. Looking back, I think now I would be more direct with a person. I’ve learned to let these situations go once I’ve said my piece a couple of times. I ultimately have to protect myself. I don’t need to understand it, I just need to not be around individuals that I can’t count on them to keep me safe! I was so discouraged in my one semester at UofL, I switched back to Spalding, realizing it was a much more personal school and that I greatly missed their more intimate environment.
At Spalding they remembered me and were happy to have me back. I explained briefly what had happened, and they suggested I put a letter in my file stating that I needed this accommodation, and they printed letters for me each semester for me to hand to my instructors, so it was officially enforced from the university so that no peanuts were allowed in my classes. This was incredible!
Initially, they even tried to give me the option to keep it confidential, to prevent any bullying, but it usually came out that I was the one with the allergy because questions about what was safe and what wasn’t would arise. It didn’t bother me that it was out in the open, but it meant a lot that they thought of that! Besides a few situations involving open peanut products, it was wonderful! Having a letter on file with the school really helped, and I happily finished my Bachelor’s degree with them.
It was nice knowing if I wanted signs put up on the vending machines to say “out of order” or “please don’t purchase any peanut items” there was no judgement, because the university wanted to me to feel safe. I couldn’t expect the entire university to go peanut-free for me, but I didn’t need that. I was keeping myself safe by washing my hands often and being aware, and I didn’t need to eat lunch in the cafeteria when it was peak hour, I could easily bring my own and eat it in my car or even in class like a lot of the other students.
It was a balance that I had to determine what I was okay with, and what I couldn’t budge on. I was okay with eating a safe meal in my car that I packed for myself, normally something that didn’t require heating or refrigeration, if it meant my 4-hour-long night class wouldn’t have peanuts in it. I even made friends in the class and they would take breaks outside with me, or make an announcement on my behalf to say, “Hey everybody, Zoe’s going to be eating with us, so no peanuts in here” to everybody in the designated break rooms. I always liked hearing the authority in their voices when they said it, I sometimes thought, “why can’t I be that commanding in my tone?” It’s still a struggle of mine to this day.
It was really nice, and once I got over the initial hump of being nervous and anxious about my allergy, although I could never fully let my guard down, I was able to a lot more. It felt like my small High School again where people knew me, and I’m a very social person and extroverted, so I liked that! After I had class with someone, I felt I had expanded my group of people looking out for me. By the time I graduated, people usually had already taken a course with me and knew who I was and were friendly to me.
Often nursing students in general education type courses with me would offer, “I’ve given epi-pens before, I’ll administer yours if you ever need it!” My response was always super appreciative, but internally each time I felt a combination of, “I really, really, really hope you never have to” but also thankful because it is good to know!
Peanut-Free Dining Halls At College
More recently it seems there are many colleges and universities getting on-board with keeping their students with severe food allergies safe. I came across this extensive list and thought it would be helpful to share some university food accommodations being made. Two other resources worth looking into are:
School, College, & Work
I’m happy to elaborate more on peanut experiences in elementary/middle/high school, college, or in the work-setting anytime! Shoot me an email via my Contact page or drop a line below in the comments section.
I do have blog articles on similar topics such as wearing a face mask with confidence, how I attend fairs/picnics/festivals, and how my current employer handles my peanut allergy and has actually gone to being a peanut-free building. For fun, I’ve attached some photos from college since I have such fond memories from Spalding University in Louisville!
As always, XO!