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Counseling Students with Food Allergies or Celiac During their College Search

By Sheryl Harpel, Founder of Gluten Free Friends



Parents and counselors do their best to guide teens toward colleges where they will thrive and meet their goals. Balancing dreams, acceptance chances, and financial aid, high school seniors apply to their target list and roll the dice. Eventually, decisions are made and they joyfully wear college sweatshirts. Those with celiac or food allergies may have unknowingly entered into another game of chance that they hadn't even considered. 

“After I realized I wouldn't be able to eat in the dining halls without getting sick, I was willing to give up on the dining halls and prepare my own food...I had to send over 100 emails, lead over 20 meetings...to get special permission to not be on the meal plan…I know several people who got tired of making constant requests and now are both paying for a meal plan AND buying all of their own food.”  A recent Yale University graduate, GFF College Dining Survey, January 2024  (2)

An estimated 7-11% of students have food restrictions, some potentially life-threatening.(1) Although medically required food restrictions are considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), dining capabilities vary dramatically by school. An integral part of social life, campus meal plans are often mandatory and can cost as much as $9K/year.(3) Some students have few or no issues. Others are surprised to find themselves on a constant search for safe, nutritious food. A lack of allergy-friendly dining can become a tremendous burden and surveyed students report physical and mental health crises, medical leaves, and transferring schools.(2)


How unjust and ridiculous that dining can turn a dream school into a nightmare!


Discuss food restrictions early in the college search, and persuade students to “know before they go.” Understandably, students may downplay or resent having to add food concerns to an already stressful college search process. Gently explain that although they can decide how much to weigh safe dining into their final decision, being informed will empower them to succeed on campus. The more they understand dining programs and housing options, the more specific and helpful accommodation requests can be. At decision time, help them compare how dietary needs could be managed at their top choices so they can factor it in along with other considerations. Resist the urge to recommend going Early Decision or committing before thoroughly vetting dining programs. 


Personal circumstances can cause students to report drastically different dining experiences at the same school. A school may support some food allergies better than others. Students without financial resources could face dire food insecurity when mandatory meal plans don’t feed them safely, while others have unlimited Amazon and UberEATS budgets. Students also have different allergen sensitivities, exposure consequences, comfort with self-advocacy, and service expectations. Take the time to understand students’ unique situations. (See: A or F? For Students with Food Restrictions, Scoring College Dining is Personal)


Trusting sources that state which food allergy dining programs are good or bad is risky. Service quality can change quickly, for better or worse, and every student is different. There aren't any shortcuts. Students must independently assess the current situation with their needs in mind, researching dining plans, housing options, and support systems at each school under serious consideration. Do not assume anything based on private versus public, big versus small, acceptance rates, or food service vendors. The main thing schools with good programs have in common is that they care and are committed to meeting the needs of their students with dietary restrictions.


Although this commitment to excellence may not look the same at each school, clues should be apparent in every student interaction, from online menus to well-trained dining staff. See if schools are proactively asking students to register food restrictions. Is a dietician available to help? Try to assess the difficulty of finding safe, nutritious food anywhere on campus without thinking about it. What dining and housing are mandatory, and what escape hatches are there if it doesn’t work out? When can students have access to a kitchen and not rely on dining halls?  


Parents and counselors should encourage students to learn enough to envision their daily food routines to see if they can cobble together a solution that works for them. Set up dining hall tours with dining managers, virtually if necessary. Ask to be connected with other students managing similar food restrictions or look for them in the dining halls by the allergy-friendly sections. Ideally, try eating there. Identify and visit the dorms with kitchens. What health services are available on campus or nearby? Go into town to check out the restaurants and supermarkets, and ask about delivery options. Spread our GFF College Dining Survey, and post our GFF Campus Flyer on campus bulletin boards to help get student feedback.


During this process, define accommodation requests that might help close any identified gaps and talk to the dietitian and Student Accessibility Services to see how willing they are to grant these requests. After committing, remind students to register medically required food restrictions just like they would register learning differences, and to pay particular attention to housing accommodation deadlines. 


Considering the dietary needs of these students is the only responsible approach. Even if students decide to make do with poor dining programs, they will be armed with enough information to ask for dorms with a kitchen or near the allergy-friendly dining hall, reduced meal plans, permission to have a car freshman year, or increased meal plan bucks in campus grocery stores.


Factor in dietary needs early and set your students up for success on campus!


Supporting slides from Presentation for Education Consultants:



Related blog posts:




2. GFF College Dining Survey Responses. Gluten Free Friends https://www.gfreefriends.com/colleges Accessed April 6, 2024


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