Even before she came to Wesleyan, Associate Dean for Student Academic Resources Laura Patey was interested in improving how food allergies and sensitivities can be addressed in university settings.
In her previous job as Director of Access Services for Students with Disabilities at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Patey worked with an organization called Food Allergy & Education (FARE), whose mission, according to its website, is to improve the lives and health of the 15 million people in the United States who have food allergies.
“I saw an increasing number of students that had food allergies or celiac disease, and, like most other schools, we were trying to figure out how to best meet the needs of students,” Patey said. “And I saw real progress at my previous institution from where we started to where we were when I left, and we had really done a lot of things that were very innovative, in terms of meeting students’ needs.”
Patey is working with FARE again now at Wesleyan, as the University is a participant in a new pilot program: the FARE College Food Allergy Program, designed to improve the education and outreach surrounding food allergies on campuses. Twelve institutions—ranging from King’s College in Wilkers-Barre, Pennsylvania to the University of Arizona and the University of Chicago—are participating.
The program began this month with an initial audit by FARE and a meeting between representatives from FARE and University administrators from Disability Resources, Health Services, Dining Services, and Residential Life.
According to Medical Director of the Health Services Department Dr. Thomas McLarney, this initial meeting was largely spent discussing current policies that exist for communication between the Health Center and the Deans’ Office. The Health Center, he explained, receives a physical examination from a doctor for every student. It then looks through those and informs Patey in Disability Resources of every person with some kind of food allergy or sensitivity.
Patey emphasized the importance of communication among departments. Especially important, she said, is that one department take the lead, providing students and administrators alike with a single, centralized group to report information to.
“This isn’t just around food allergies, but if a student has a particular need or concern and there are a lot of different places they could go with that, they might get different responses depending on where they go,” Patey said. “And what we have found in most models is by centralizing those kinds of services, you have a better and more comprehensive response to it.”
FARE launched the College Food Allergy Program alongside the release of a set of guidelines for best practices. Included in those guidelines, as one of the components of an effective food allergy policy, is the suggestion that all information funnel to a single, centralized resource.
Which department heads the effort can vary. Differences between institutions, Patey said, can change which department is best suited to serve as the central resource, or “key office,” as Patey calls it.
“Oftentimes, it’s disabilities services [as it is at Wesleyan,]” Patey said. “On some campuses, it may make sense if it’s Health Services, just because of the nature of their campus and the way the programs run. In another campus, it may be [Residential Life] that takes the lead, because the dining halls may be right in the residence halls.”
Part of the reason the University applied for the pilot program, according to Director of Usdan University Center Michele Myers-Brown, was to highlight the current work the University does to help students who have food allergies.
“I think we’ve done a really good job [dealing with food allergies on campus], and so we applied for the FARE program because we really felt we had something to share with colleges and universities that could benefit students outside of Wesleyan,” Myers-Brown said.
Because the University is small, Dining Services can meet individually with students who have allergies or food sensitivities. Workers can also wrap students’ food individually in order to prevent cross-contamination, or the use of serving dishes in multiple containers, which can cause food created to not include certain common allergens ingredients to have traces of those allergens.
Preventing cross-contamination is vital.
“Some folks have such strong gluten sensitivity, all you have to do is have a minute amount of a gluten product in the food and they’re going to have symptoms,” McLarney said. “And their symptoms can be pretty severe from gluten exposure. That’s what we’re going to try to do, is educate the workers at Bon Appetit, the workers at Usdan, the student workers at Usdan.”
The focus of the FARE program will not be as much on reforming current policies as it will be on improving education and outreach regarding food allergies and providing Dining Service workers and RAs with training.
“We’re going to include, based on our conversations in our meetings, some folks from health services as well as some folks from Public Safety as part of the training,” Patey said, “so that there’s a level of awareness raised around serious food allergies and how to respond to students who might be having a serious allergy or might be in a situation with a serious food allergy.”
In terms of education and outreach, the group is working on determining how to provide students with information, so that, by the time they arrive for New Student Orientation, they understand the policies and services the school has in place.
Above all, according to McLarney, the new program aims to allow students with allergies to enjoy, rather than worry about, eating at University facilities.
“You’ve got to eat on campus in order to survive,” McLarney said. “But eating is also a wonderful social and cultural type of exercise—experience, you could say—especially in the college atmosphere. So we’re trying to make that as [good a] process as possible.”