Months before I started at U of T (University of Toronto) I had to meet with the disabilities department to ensure I was placed in an apartment style accommodation, and not a dorm room with a cafeteria. When considering which university I would go to, I knew I either wanted to go to an American school or U of T. And since my parents were totally against the American thing, I went to U of T. They agreed to let me stay in residence even though we lived an hour drive from the city, because they didn't want to rob me of the life experience. But it was really the ability to stay in an apartment that sealed the deal. Had I been assigned to a dorm style room, it would have been far too difficult to manage my allergies and eat healthfully. Allergies take up enough mind space as it is, so no need to exacerbate things with constantly worrying about whether my caf meal is safe.
At that point in my life I was determined to hide my food allergies in any way possible. I was very shy about it, embarrassed even. I thought my allergies made me a loser because I had been bulled about it in school. I imagined it would be difficult to make friends if they knew I was registered with the disabilities office for a food problem. I didn't want to seem like the "allergy police" constantly pointing out cleanliness flaws and reading labels. But much to my surprise, the office had arranged for me to live with 3 other girls (most suites had 6), one of which had allergies very similar to my own.
Knowing that I wasn't alone was a huge source of confidence for me. It also meant that "the talk" with our other roommates wasn't coming only from me. And both of our moms cleaned the crap out of our shared kitchen on move in day to ensure there were no allergens present. When our residence RA came to greet us, she had also been informed of our allergies and took the lead on discussing it with our suite as a whole. Having the conversation together was a relief, and I highly recommend you bring your floor supervisor (sometimes called a don or an RA) into it. These are the things we talked about...
What are allergies
Explain what food allergies are. If someone has not lived with them and doesn't have a close friend or family member with food allergy, it's likely that they don't fully understand it. Don't be shy about it. Explain the causes, symptoms, and your emergency action plan. Be clear about where you keep your epinephrine and antihistamines, and bring an epinephrine demo unit to show them how to use it.
Print out a table showing what you are allergic to, examples of common foods they are found in, and other names they go by. Keep this posted in a public place, for example, taped to the fridge.
Cleanliness and cross contact
Rogue crumbs, "sink salads" (the gross build up of food scraps in the sink), dirty sponges, spills, residues, baked on mess... these are all potential sources of cross contact. Keep a clean sponge separate from the shared one, for your own dishes. Let it be known that cleanliness is not something you want to have to enforce, and is not desired because you are a clean freak. It's a necessity in order to keep yourself safe in your new home.
It can be a lot of fun to cook with your new roommates. A "family" dinner, baking cookies, whipping up tons of junk food. Whatever your jam is, there are options.
- You can try leading the cooking so that you have more control over what goes into the food. That strategy always worked well for me, and as people came to know me as the chef in our unit, it was assumed that I would bake things and take the lead with recipes when we all ate together.
- If your roommates are making something that you are allergic to, don't take it personally. People like to enjoy their own comfort foods just as you enjoy yours. Let them know that in those cases you will eat your own food. You don't need to sit it out, just don't share their food. As long as they take care to clean up properly and avoid cross contact, you should be able to coexist.
- You can let them know some safe treats you enjoy and where they can be bought. You can also do grocery shopping together so that they can see how you scan for safe ingredients. My roommates often wanted to pick up snacks that we could all have and it was really nice to feel included.
Bring stickers to mark which foods are yours, and keep them in a separate area of the fridge and cupboards. Explain to your roommates that you prefer not to share foods because of the potential for cross-contamination. They might be used to drinking straight from the jug of orange juice at home, but that could be unsafe for you in your shared residence. Specialty foods may also be expensive and difficult to acquire, so if your roommate chows down on them it could cause some serious animosity.
When other people come into your unit it can be difficult to enforce all the guidelines we just discussed. You and your roommates should clean down all surfaces, glasses, etc. after you have a party. Snack foods are likely to be passed around, fridges may be pillaged, cookie boxes dug into. Stick to disposable plates, cutlery, and cups for parties. Avoid eating from shared snack bowls, and try to put out snacks that are safe for everyone. Ensure you have your Epi Pen with you even if you are just down the hall at a neighbor's party. If you are going to be drinking, educate yourself about which alcohols are safe for you and your specific allergies. Your roommates should know that you won't accept random drinks, shots, beers, etc. because alcohols that you are not familiar with could be unsafe. This might not have been a pressure point in high school, but alcohol is prevalent at college parties.
Most of all, don't let all these rules, worries, and situations intimidate or overwhelm you. If your new roommates are decent people they should be able to empathize and understand your situation. It may be unrealistic to expect everyone to abstain from consuming your allergens, but that doesn't mean your home won't be safe. It just means you have to work together and ensure everyone receives as much explanation and education as possible.
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