For many youngsters, studying at university is the time of their lives – independence, new friends and learning about something they are passionate about. But for students who suffer from food allergies, this can be their most vulnerable time.
For an awful lot of students, it’s their first time away from home – which means that someone else needs to step in to take that ‘parental’ role seriously. Leaving home for the first time is life-changing for any young person but for those suffering from food allergies it can be a very dangerous time because they are having to manage their allergies for themselves. Prior to this moment, their parents probably cooked for them and did the food shopping, checking labels to ensure things are free from specific allergens.
Peer pressure also has an influence as some allergy sufferers don’t want to feel different and may not take life-saving medication out with them. It’s a significant problem at this stage in young lives, and it’s not looking like it’s going to improve any time soon:
- Teenagers and young adults are most at risk of severe reactions
- 50% of children and young people have one or more allergy within the first 18 years of life
- Each year the number of allergy sufferers increases by 5% half of all affected are children and young people
- In the last decade, the cases of food allergies have doubled and the number of hospitalisations caused by severe allergic reactions has increased seven-fold
But there’s a number of things that universities and colleges can do (and that parents can be vigilant about):
- Make sure they have allergen accreditation. It’s a key part of the process of educating your organisation.
- Have a stand at Freshers Week to talk about food allergen awareness
- Meet with residential advisors on campus to identify students with food allergies
- Produce a daily allergen chart for all the dishes being served
- Hold a briefing before service to educate the counter staff
- Colour code utensils and allergen-free dishes (I use the colour purple)
- Publish an online menu cycle
- Salad bars can be an area of cross-contamination so offer bespoke salad bowls for people with food allergies
- Train all staff in the use of epipens
- Ensure that full nutritional and allergen information is available
- If the recipe of a dish changes, ensure customers are informed
Get those steps right and the institution will be well on the way to make food safe for students. So that they can get on with enjoying themselves. And studying, of course.
Jacqui McPeake is founder of JACS Allergen Management, giving advice and consultancy on food allergen and intolerance management in the catering industry.