Food allergic in college, and coping

Timothy Trachimowicz, head chef at College of the Holy Cross, prepares gluten-free chicken stir-fry with vegetables and rice. Many colleges are adapting to the growing need for specially prepared meals for students with allergies. Timothy Trachimowicz, head chef at College of the Holy Cross, prepares gluten-free chicken stir-fry with vegetables and rice. Many colleges are adapting to the growing need for specially prepared meals for students with allergies. (Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / April 7, 2010

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WORCESTER — Just off the main student dining hall at College of the Holy Cross, there’s a small kitchenette to which two dozen students have a key. Inside are a freezer and refrigerator stocked with grab-and-go gluten-free foods such as pizzas, waffles, enchiladas, and breads, as well as dairy-free milk and protein drinks. Cabinets are filled with gluten-free cereals and crackers, and there’s a toaster, microwave, clean cutting boards, and plastic utensils that have never been used for other foods. For students who have to be extremely careful about what they eat, this room is a safe haven.

Many high school seniors are making their college decisions right about now. It’s even more complicated for students with food allergies and other dietary needs. College is often the first time many have lived away from home and they’re about to be completely responsible for choosing their meals. Now many institutions, including Holy Cross, Boston College, and Tufts, are adapting to the growing need for specially prepared meals and greater vigilance in the kitchen to keep foods safe from cross-contamination.

Christine Milne, 21, a Holy Cross junior from St. Johnsbury, Vt., was diagnosed with celiac disease and lactose intolerance about three years ago. She says the college’s dining hall staff, including head chef Timothy Trachimowicz, help her to make healthful choices. “I used to have a lot of anxiety about not being in a safe environment, but I’ve never had a problem here,’’ she says.

While Milne finds it easiest to have a standing weekly menu, Cortney Flanagan, 20, a junior from South Hadley, e-mails the kitchen daily with her requests. If the junior, who’s allergic to wheat, soy, egg whites, and peanuts, forgets to order in advance, she’ll grab a wheat-free pizza from the kitchenette. Junior Ashley Buckley, 20, from Duxbury, pre-orders gluten-free dinners, but also takes advantage of the assortment of gluten-free cereals, breads, snacks, and salad dressings.

Trachimowicz understands gluten-free, lactose-free, and other restrictions. “Students come to us and want to know ‘What’s safe for me to eat?’ We go through the menu options, ingredients, and the nutrition analysis with them.’’

Not all students seek assistance in managing their allergies. And privacy laws prevent health records from being shared with the school dietitian or dining manager unless the student permits it, explains Sheila Tucker, executive dietitian at Boston College. Based on national statistics that 4 percent of the US population has some kind of food allergy, Tucker estimates that she sees only one-quarter to one-half of enrolled students with food allergies, or about 30 new students each year. “They need to speak up,’’ she says.

Then she can work with students to identify particular allergens in foods served on campus and review what options are available. For example, at the three major BC dining halls, students can order special meals in advance, and there’s a freezer filled with gluten-free items near the checkout. Tucker advises students to skip self-service areas to avoid possible cross-contamination (picture shredded cheese landing in the bin of grated carrots or croutons getting mixed in with the lettuce), and ask for made-to-order salads and sandwiches instead.

Safety is the major goal, Tucker says. “But my other job is to keep [the students] well nourished.’’ Sometimes students stay away from whole food groups because of an allergy, when they might need the nutrients from those particular foods. She gets a lot of concerned parent phone calls right after Thanksgiving, which is often when the student has been home for the first time. If incoming freshmen come see her at the beginning of the semester, explains Tucker, it paves the way for “a safe transition to enjoying eating on campus.’’

At colleges that post menus online, students can click on items to read the nutritional content, ingredient lists, and identified allergens. Tufts takes this one step further by also providing the information at point-of-service. Next to every food selection, small cards indicate ingredients and allergens. New cards are printed daily for each item offered on the menu. Tufts dietitian Julie Lampie explains, “Because we change our products and recipes, this ensures that all the ingredients are accounted for.’’

Knowing what’s in every food is critical for Rachel Newmiller, as it is for anyone with life-threatening allergies. Newmiller, a 19-year-old BC freshman from Pennsylvania, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, and most seeds. She chose BC over Cornell and Penn State because she felt that all her needs would be best met there. She and her parents visited the school last spring and met with Tucker and the director of dining, and ate two meals in the dining hall. “If they were not as accommodating, I wouldn’t be here,’’ she says.

Newmiller calls or e-mails her order for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch and picks up the packaged meals. “It’s not something I’m self-conscious about,’’ she says. “It’s better if those around you are aware so they can be watchful and I can be safe.’’

At Holy Cross, Trachimowicz works diligently to provide safe meals. “It’s a big day-to-day challenge for me, making sure the staff is following the recipes and there’s consistency in preparation,’’ he says. “These kids are depending on us.’’

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