Friends and food seem to make an apt combination in a Tufts dining hall. A toppings-ridden Sunday Sundae and a few simple cookies often best complement a Dewick table conversation. For the students at Tufts that face serious food allergies, however, this combination may turn out not to be so pleasant.
The chopped walnuts nestled on top of the mound of whipped cream and the peanut butter swirls in the cookies tempting most students serve as caution signs for others, warnings of serious physiological consequences.
Nutrition marketing specialist at Tufts, Julie Lampie, understands the allergies on campus and directs university allergen policy through Dining Services.
“In terms of general population who is affected by a severe food allergy, it’s a small percentage,” Lampie said. “I think it is less than two percent of the population that has a diagnosed food allergy, while there is a lot of self-diagnosis and food intolerance.”
At Tufts, the most common allergens are celiac, a protein found in gluten, and nuts.
But students who face serious food allergies are not alone in their attempts to stay safe. Led by Dining Services and Health Service, the university has been making an effort in the last few years to provide a greater deal of support and guidance to students — and Lampie is leading the way
“I am basically responsible for the menus in the dining halls, the recipe development, nutrition analysis, meeting with students regarding food allergies, and vegetarian diets,” Lampie said. “I tend to counsel those students, as well.”
Lampie works closely with Health Services at the beginning of each school year in order to educate first-year students about the resources that Tufts provides.
“Health Services has the medical record of every student so they review every medical record, and any student who indicates that they have a food allergy is noted,” Lampie said. “A letter from me goes out via Health Services, but because of confidentiality laws, I don’t know who gets my letter unless they contact me after receiving a letter.”
Despite this initial attempt to notify students of the support they can receive, Lampie notes that many students choose not to seek support from the allergy services that are provided.
According to Lampie, some students only contact Health Services after having a serious allergic reaction.
“The problem is that we reach a quarter of the students because the remainder never contacts me,” she said.
Both Health and Dining Services believe that reaching out to first year students is especially important, as the transition from high school to college can be further complicated by allergies.
Freshman Ben Saperstein, who is allergic to all nuts, has not found the transition to be difficult, even considering that his nut allergy is both life threatening and airborne.
“Basically, the only adjustment is letting my friends know and making them aware of my allergies,” Saperstein said in an e-mail, also noting how he was able to manage his own allergy before coming to college. “When I was young, my parents asked questions at restaurants, but as I got older I did the questioning.
Lampie, however, suggests that the move to college is more difficult for most other students dealing with an allergy.
“We have a wide variety of food, and it’s a little intimidating when they first come because they are coming from a safe environment at home,” she said. “It’s still typically a mother who does most of the shopping, knows what she is preparing and knows all of the ingredients. I think it’s a little scary to certain students.”
And although most students have been aware of their allergies since birth and are capable of managing themselves, Dining Services takes precautions to minimize the risk.
The most apparent precaution to students is the information card situated next to each prepared food item. Each card notes an entire list of ingredients and any allergens in the product. This is the second year that the information cards have been utilized and feedback has been positive, as many students use them for various reasons.
Less obvious measures that Dining Services has taken include new policies such as one prohibiting staff members from answering any allergen-related question that a student may have.
“We’ve seen reactions to peanut butter cookies where a staff person has said to a student, when questioned about nuts, that there were no nuts in the cookie because there were no visible nuts,” Lampie said. “It should be either myself, the manager, or the chef manager…to help reduce the problem of people who aren’t knowledgeable enough to give proper information.”
Additionally, staff members across campus are required to comply with student safety requests. For example, students may request that a server change gloves before preparing a sandwich or that they be allowed to use uncontaminated vegetables for a salad.
Senior Sam Quintero, who has a peanut allergy, has been pleased with the university’s efforts.
“With respect to my personal allergy and other food allergies for that matter, I think Tufts does a good job,” Quintero said in an e-mail. “The only suggestion I have is that it might be a good idea to target major food allergies and, when those ingredients are used in foods served on campus, have a highlighted warning label.”
But serious food allergies also extend outside of the dining halls to residential buildings, where food policies are nonexistent. The responsibility then falls upon the allergic individual and living mates, if they are aware of the allergy.
According to a 2007 study conducted by the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, nearly 40% of roommates were unaware of the other’s allergy.
“I think it’s up to the individual to share that information, especially if it’s an airborne allergy,” Lampie said. “Sometimes people in a close space breathe it in and have a reaction. I think it’s important, depending on the allergen, that it is discussed with roommates.”
Freshman Eric Wachs, whose roommate has an airborne nut allergy, shares an open dialogue about his roommate’s allergy and has had to take precautions to ensure a safe room environment.
“Basically, if I eat peanut butter or something with nuts in it, I have to brush my teeth and wash my hands before I talk to him or touch anything in the room,” Wachs said. “I’ve been aware of it for so long, though, that it’s always something on my mind, and I’m careful about it.”
The Michigan study also notes that there is a low level of preparedness for college students prone to anaphylactic shock, as only 22 percent of students have an emergency epinephrine device while 11.7 percent carry it with them.
“This is a huge issue,” Lampie said. “Students have backpacks, and I don’t know why, if you tend to be prone to anaphylactic shock, you would not carry it.”
The dining halls here at Tufts, however, do not have emergency epinephrine devices to care for anaphylactic shock until the arrival of a more advanced medical service.
“I believe this is for liability reasons,” Lampie said. “We’re not trained in how to dispense them, and I think the university has made it known that they don’t want us to carry epinephrine pens.”
Although this university policy is in place, some students, like freshman Judy Flumenbaum, feel as if it would be more beneficial to alter the policy.
“A dining hall is a place where epinephrine devices are needed the most,” Flumenbaum said. “Having friends who have serious food allergies, I would feel more comfortable knowing that there is immediate access to such devices in the dining halls.”