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Over The College Barrel

Six colleges. Six different types of campuses. Six different approaches to communal dining. And what did all of them have in common?

Cluenessness. Utter, complete cluelessness.

I had been feeling pretty good about college. Our high school counselor said "they deal with this stuff all the time, it will work out." The college admissions officers we've met at the various college fairs said "oh, yeah, food allergies are common! They make tons of accommodations!" The parents on College Confidential said "it's totally different than when we went to school and everyone ate the same thing."

This was the first time we had really sat down with food service at any of these schools. The first time we had tried to actually eat lunch during a tour. And guess what? CLUELESS!

It started with the admissions office calls. "Well," said the woman on the other end of the phone, "it looks like we're having barbeque chicken that day. Would that work for your son?"

I don't know. Would it? What are the ingredients? Did your kitchen staff use good cross-contamination protocols? Can you guarantee they followed the recipe, instead of throwing an extra dollop of butter in at the end to make it all look glossy? And, if he does have a reaction, is there anyone there to help? Will his cell phone even be able to access 911 there, assuming he's in good enough shape to dial?

I didn't say that, however. I'm infinitely aware that my son is not a catch when it comes to college admissions. He doesn't have a 4.0. He's not an athlete. There are no "hooks" to get him in the door, like us donating a library. They don't need one more reason not to admit him and the typical holistic approach to admissions at most colleges ensures that the kid with the mother who calls and badgers about food service is going to get a flag on his file.

So, we asked to talk or meet directly with food service on campus. Their responses were equally startling and horrifying.

"So your child has a gluten allergy, you say? We have a lot of gluten allergic kids on campus now." I gently remind him that gluten intolerance and food allergies are very different creatures, with only one having the possible outcome of quick death. "Oh, like a peanut allergy," was the response. "We only have a couple kids with those kind of allergies and they're all peanut. Those kids just have to learn what they can't eat."

When I told him about the MILK allergy, his eyes glazed over. "Well, I guess there's the salad bar." My husband went over to take a look. When he returned, he said "the fruit would be totally off limits all the time - there's yogurt everywhere. Even the lettuce looks like it may have sprinkle cheese in it." The three of us stared at each other.

"I guess we can go through the recipe books and see if there's going to be anything safe for him, but just about everything we make has milk in it," says the food service guy.

"You do understand that there are a TON of kids just like my son coming right behind him, right? You know that 1993-95 seems to be the start of this uptick in food allergies? That there are a couple kids in every kindergarten class now?"

"Yeah, we talked about it at a conference this year," he said. "We know it's coming. I guess I felt better because even the big schools don't know how they're going to deal with it yet. We have to figure it out, but we just don't know how to do it. How do you control the food to that degree when you're dealing with so many kids and so many allergies?"

One big campus we checked out on-line had this to say:

Because of the number of meals served and the number of items used each day, along with food product changes by our food vendor, it is nearly impossible to identify and label every allergen in the food that is being served.  There is also the possibility that manufacturers of the commercial foods we use could change the formulation at any time, without notice.  Customers concerned with food allergies need to be aware of this risk.  [Happy Shiny School] cannot assume any liability for adverse reactions to food consumed, or items one may come in contact with while eating at any University Dining facility or catered event.

In other words, we can't guarantee you're not going to die...but pay up for the food service plan anyway.

I'm lost. It feels like the start of kindergarten all over again except, unlike kindergarten, they don't have to take my kid. They don't have to learn. They don't have to accommodate. If I had any doubts that my child is moving into "the real world", this experience clarified things for me. The power is all on their side.

One thing I have learned is that there's no point — and even potentially great harm — in doing a thorough exploration of food service before we have an admittance in hand. I'm going to have to put all my anxieties in a little box for another year and just hope we can make the best of things wherever he gets admitted. There's always the community college option or commuting to a local school, although I really wanted the freshman dorm experience for him specifically because he's been so sheltered.

And who knows. Perhaps this clinical trial will succeed beyond our wildest dreams and all his allergies will be magically gone by the end of the summer.

One thing's for sure - it would give him a damn good topic for a college essay.


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