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The challenge of food allergies at PLNU

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The number of students at PLNU with severe food allergies is on the rise, up from one in 2014, to at least 10 in 2016.

This is according to the PLNU Disability Resource Center (DRC), which only keeps track of students who self-report their allergies. Nichole Hope-Moore is the Director of the DRC, and says there are likely many students who are working through this on their own.

“I’ve only been here three years, but [the number of registered students] has increased dramatically,” said Hope-Moore. “There are probably people walking around trying to handle it on their own that I’m not aware of.”

The number of people in the U.S. with food allergies is increasing, as the National Institute of Health (NIH) says five percent of children and four percent of adults now face what can be life-threatening reactions.

Life on campus can be frightening to students with severe allergies. One student faced what they described as a potentially fatal situation. This student, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, described a conflict with their roommates.

“It came to my attention that they had peanut butter in the room, and I was like ‘hey, this isn’t a good thing. You know, even almond butter, that’s pretty lethal to me.’”

For this student, simply talking with the roommates did not seem to fix the problem.
“We have a fridge and of course I’m using it; [later] I go inside and I find more peanut butter … and I thought I had made myself clear.”

This student is in the 98th percentile for a nut allergy and, as they explained, this means coming into contact with nuts, or even inhaling particles from them, could kill them within two minutes.

The incident worked its way up through the DRC and Residential Life, and they eventually reached a solution where the student was able to switch rooms with another student, solving the problem.

However, while administrators searched for a solution, this student felt they couldn’t even return to their room.

“I was a little bit scared on Friday because one of the roommates came to me screaming at me for going to the RD,” said the unnamed student. “I went to one of my friend’s room and I was camping out there that day. It wasn’t great.”

While this student is now enjoying their new quarters, they still feel bad for any trouble they had caused.

Jeff Bolster, Dean of Students, says these problems are best solved before the year begins.

“The best time to solve that stuff is before people get here. Once people get here and get in their rooms, then it gets a little bit messy.”

In 2013, the Department of Justice extended the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act to those with food related diseases and allergies.

Hope-Moore of the DRC says this protection means schools must now accommodate those students.

“With the ADA it says you have to provide reasonable accommodations, so it looks different on every campus, but every campus is responsible for providing an accommodation.”

At PLNU, these accommodations are mostly in the cafeteria. Since Miles Rottman took control of Sodexo on PLNU’s campus, many changes have been made to help students with severe food diagnoses.

Many food-based reactions come from the same foods. The Center for Disease Control says, “Eight foods account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.”

By eliminating contamination from these eight types of food, the caf becomes more hospitable to students with severe food allergies.

The DRC has worked closely with Sodexo to create allergen-free options for these students.

“[Miles] and I work very closely together to make sure his staff in Sodexo is trained, as well as the student workers,” says Hope-Moore. “[The caf] has a separate area in the back where they only prepare the gluten-free stuff, with separate dishes and separate utensils.”

For students who don’t have an actual allergy, but instead have major reactions to certain foods, the situation is a little less clear. Now there are options in the caf which can help many students, but that wasn’t always the case.

Payton Planiden is a senior majoring in nutrition and health with a minor in non-profit organizational management. She had many food restrictions before coming to PLNU, but was told because they were only intolerances she did not qualify for special accommodations.

Planiden said she was able to make this work for a little while, even finding a chef in the caf who helped make meals free of contaminants for her. Unfortunately when he left PLNU, so did her specially prepared meals.

This became especially problematic after she returned from studying abroad with a new diagnosis.

“I had IBS, which is irritable bowel syndrome, and I had to follow a very strict autoimmune diet. This included no soy, dairy, meat, legumes, gluten, and certain vegetables,” said Planiden. “They told me ‘sorry, that your stomach is that way, but we have salad.’ I met with the dietician to see what foods they did have available in the caf that I could eat, but most of the steamed options where no oil was used were meat options.”

The school did not recognize Planiden’s diagnosis because she went to see a Naturopath, which specializes in more natural care.

The NIH says those who practice Naturopathy are “naturopathic physicians, traditional naturopaths, and other health care providers who also offer naturopathic services.”

Hope-Moore says all schools in the U.S. require official documentation of their allergies, “All students who want to receive some type of accommodation have to submit official documentation from their official diagnosing physician.”

Despite preparing her own food during her junior year, Planiden says she was told by administrators that she could be de-enrolled unless she went to an “M.D.” who would do a blood workup.

In response she moved off campus, where she says she has been fine ever since.

According to several students with food allergies The Point spoke to, housing can be a difficult process. Sometimes roommates don’t listen or understand the severity food can have on students with allergies.

While it’s easier to solve conflicts before they arise, sometimes they occur after the year has begun. Bolster described a possible scenario.

“[let’s say] students get into the room–one has a food allergy, the other does not, and the two of them have trouble working it out. Like can you just keep that stuff on your side of the room?” Once the conflict arises, Bolster says Residential Life will step in. “Like other typical roommate conflicts, we’ll get involved and try and help negotiate or help people.”

Hope-Moore said if the problems continue, it can even be a violation of PLNU’s housing policies. “If it gets to the point where the roommate continues to still bring in the nut stuff, or whatever the case is, and they’re not adhering to the policies, then it ramps up to a code of conduct violation.”

The DRC reports that because food allergies are under the ADA, students with food allergies and other food conditions are a protected population.

However, the student who had to move because of their allergy says it is very new, and many universities are still struggling to determine the best way to accommodate students.

Before transferring to PLNU this year this student was at another Christian university, and was moved five times because of conflicts due to their food allergy.

“It’s very new, it’s very fresh, and people don’t know what to do, but they need to. You have to be progressive, you have to be proactive.”

Hope-Moore says there is more the school can do to let students know about how the school can help them meet their dietary needs.

“I think myself, the dietitian, and Miles need to do a better job of advertising this information,” said Hope-Moore. “If you’re a commuter student or just got here as a transfer, you may not know.”


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Nicholas Kjeldgaard

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