To start things off, my #1 tip for life-threatening food-allergic individuals going to work, school, or college is this: attend an institution that treats you and sees you as a person, and not just another number.
I’ve found that smaller environments are able to hold up their end of a food allergy accommodation (and any disability accommodation) much better. The bigger the corporation/school/university, the more people being controlled, and the larger margin of error. I follow Sarah Todd Hammer on Instagram because she shows disability accommodation content, and a lot of it is specific to college accommodations. She doesn’t post food allergy-specific content, but it’s still relevant to see how people request accommodations at college and go about doing so confidently.
I “College Hopped” Due To My Peanut Allergy
I first attended a semester of college at Indiana University Southeast (IUS) right after High School and knew shortly after that college 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 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. In the present day, I wouldn’t feel the same way because I avoid any establishment that uses peanuts. This shift was due to my peanut allergy becoming even more severe on the food allergy spectrum as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve had more life-threatening reactions. If you don’t know my full food allergy story, feel free to read it here.
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. 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. Everyone there knew I had my peanut allergy and I never had a life-threatening reaction there that I couldn’t treat with antihistamines alone. Unfortunately, I did get itchy enough to have to take Benadryl from time to time and I took my own precautions for sure- wiping things down and avoiding most of the building, washing my hands often, eating outside of the break room, etc.
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 in Louisville. I would ask the instructors to make an announcement to the class, and the class sizes were small (15-20 students max) and so it was pretty easy to ensure there weren’t peanuts being brought in and I was able to see anything being eaten. I did have to remind people in class normally to not eat the snacks they brought in with peanuts, but it wasn’t so bad since it was a close-knit environment. As usual, some students and teachers took it more seriously than others. In my second semester there I took an Art History course that opened my eyes and changed my life. This single class, the only A+ I’ve ever gotten, led me on the path to becoming an Art History major at the University of Louisville (UofL) since Spalding didn’t offer an Art History degree.
However, upon getting started at UofL, I immediately knew it was a bad fit due to its lack of disability accommodations.
The Bigger The University, The Fewer Accommodations (In My Experience)
UofL was a large university, and I had no control while in packed hallways with snacks for sale or lecture rooms of 200+ students. During my first day of class, I couldn’t ride the required shuttle bus that they made Freshmen/Sophomores use to shuttle everyone from the parking lot of the stadium to the campus because someone next to me opened a bag of peanuts. I held my breath and ran to the other end of the bus, getting off at the next stop about 1 mile away from where I needed to be. For a brief moment, I thought maybe it would be possible to make UofL work 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 peanuts. I spoke to the school about how I didn’t want to ride the shuttle due to my allergy and requested getting a different parking garage pass, even willing to pay more for it, and they said it isn’t permitted even with a life-threatening allergy.
I felt defeated and despite my own comfort, I tried riding the shuttle for weeks, and my anxiety was through the roof. Inevitably someone would open a Snickers or other peanut snack, and I’d have to ring the bell and fight my way off, just to be stranded far from my car and late walking to my class. This was before I knew KN95/N95 masks were an option to help prevent an allergic reaction, mind you. I ended up parking in the nearest neighborhood to campus and walking to the university instead, and it was cheaper, anyway. Although I didn’t get a refund for my barely used parking pass, even after explaining how I couldn’t use it and didn’t need it. It was random policies in place that had no exceptions that I was infuriated by for not only my own sake but others with disabilities not being accommodated.
I reached out to my UofL professors before classes would begin each semester to see if they would make an announcement to not eat peanut products in the classroom and if they didn’t feel comfortable, asking if I could make the announcement myself. All the instructors either made the announcement or let me make one, but it was clear to me that no students were going to listen. One example that still stands out to me as if it were yesterday was in my French class. I recall catching up with a mother of a student who attended my small High School with me, I recognized her and we talked on the first day of class. Despite this connection, every class period 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 even after hearing my announcement at the start of the semester, she often she would eat it anyway. Like clockwork, I would have to rush out and email the professor about the situation and why I left class. I wondered what this meant, was she doing it on purpose? Was I not clear enough? It left me baffled!
Because I knew her and her daughter and we had extensively talked about the severity of my peanut allergy, I assumed she would be the one person I wouldn’t have to worry about. However, she never switched to another sandwich or felt she was doing me any harm, even after I’d have to leave due to her actions. I explained over and over, clearly and concisely, and she would be really polite and understanding, but then she would 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. It was exhausting.
Looking back, I would be more direct with someone in a situation like this, but in my early 20s, I wasn’t as confident having these food allergy conversations and often felt like a burden to others. I’ve learned to let these situations go once I’ve said my piece a couple of times, and not try to win over someone and their friendship. I ultimately had to protect myself. I didn’t need to understand why she was doing what she was doing, I just needed to not be around people like her if I could help it. I was so discouraged in my semester at UofL that I switched back to Spalding University, realizing it was a much more personal school and that I greatly missed the more intimate environment and accommodative nature.
Disability Letters Enforced By The University
I reached out to Spalding and they remembered me and were happy to have me back. I explained briefly what had happened at UofL, and they were very apologetic and suggested I put a disability letter in my file stating the accommodations I needed and told me they’d be happy to enforce them for me. I was thrilled! They printed letters for me each semester that I could hand out to my instructors, and discussed the protocol, so it was officially enforced by the university that no peanuts were allowed in my classes. This was incredible and they were happy to do it and didn’t feel it was a big ask.
Initially, they even tried to give me the option to keep it confidential, to prevent any bullying, but it always came out that I was the one with the allergy in the classroom because questions about what was safe and what wasn’t would arise, and I’d have to speak up. It didn’t bother me that it was out in the open, though, but it meant a lot that they thought of that and offered to keep it private. Besides a few situations involving accidental open peanut products, it was a wonderful college experience that worked for me. 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 the university to put up signs on the vending machines to say “out of order” or “please don’t purchase any peanut items” there was no judgment and they would do so because the university wanted me to feel safe. I really can’t express how good of a feeling that was. I didn’t and couldn’t expect the entire university to go peanut-free, for example, there were no accommodations made in the cafeteria, but I didn’t need that. There wasn’t a way to easily make food safe, especially without a lack of labeling laws in the U.S., so bringing my own food was my own preference.
Attending college with a food allergy was a delicate balance for me because I had to determine what I was okay with, and what I couldn’t budge on, and communicate it. 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 and therefore give me anxiety the entire class when I heard someone opening up a wrapper. At Spalding I even made friends in the class and they would take breaks outside with me instead of in the break room/cafeteria or would make an announcement on my behalf to say, “Hey everybody, Zoe’s going to be eating with us today, so please 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 in my thirties, but I’m feeling the authority in my voice grow and am overall more empowered each year to speak up for myself.
Spalding felt similar to my small High School where people knew me, and I’m a very social person and extroverted, so I liked that. After I had a class with someone and made connections, I felt I had expanded my group of people looking out for me regarding my food allergy. By the time I graduated, people usually had already taken a course with me and knew who I was, not to eat peanuts, and were friendly to me. In fact, it became a trend that nursing students in general education type courses with me would whisper, “Hey Zoe, I’ve given epi-pens before, so 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 hey, it is good to know.
College Accommodations Are Key
I hope this personal blog post will help teens with food allergies going into college, and allow parents of allergic children some peace of mind as their children approach joining the workforce and/or attending a trade school or college. Living with a life-threatening food allergy can be scary, yes, but so can virtually anything. The thing to remember is that if it’s an institution worth attending or working for, they will be able to make accommodations for you. If not, they aren’t worth your investment of time or money anyway.
I’ve found most everything can often be accommodated in the real world with a little groundwork, planning, and if I’m clear about my accommodation needs. Of course, that is one tricky part of living with my food allergy, what I call an invisible disability because unless I tell someone, no one will know I have it. It’s not obvious by looking at me that I have a life-threatening food allergy that’s airborne and cross-contact reactive to peanuts. I’m still learning this because it’s such a part of my life, sometimes I forget that others don’t know how to help and accommodate me unless I tell them.
One thing I was curious about, was that when I was in K-12 and college there weren’t 504 plans in schools yet. I wondered now if 504 plans applied to students in college and found this Understood.org article explaining it. It seems, in short, the answer is no. The article I linked discusses and links to other articles of theirs on college disability services, and goes more in-depth than I am able to, so check it out as a resource and you can always talk to the individual college as well.
Peanut-Free Dining Halls At College
In recent years it seems there are many colleges and universities getting on board with keeping their students with life-threatening 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:
*I bet even more are around now in 2022-2023!
Contact Invisibly Allergic About School, College, And/Or Work With A Food Allergy
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 me page. For fun, I’ve attached some photos from college since I have such fond memories!
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