I was the kid who could never eat the cake at birthday parties. I was the kid who had to always have the school nurse accompany me by my side on all the class field trips. I was the kid who was forced to sit at the “peanut-free” lunch table in elementary school. I was the kid who had mastered the “fine” art of injecting an Epipen. This was all because peanuts were and are still the enemy. Well, not just peanuts. Peanuts, tree nuts, soy, beans, seeds; the list goes on endlessly. Having dozens of severe food allergies has become second nature to me at this point, for I have grown up having them throughout my entire life. And although I am completely accustomed and in control of them right now, growing up with food allergies was not always the easiest task. I used to think of myself as “weird.” An outcast. An anomaly. It took awhile for me to understand that food allergies are more common than you may think, and while they can be life threatening and sometimes an inconvenience, I came to realize that there are far worse conditions out there in the world.
Growing up, my allergist (a man who I visited quite often) taught me about the “Big Four.” Not the group of top Allied leaders from World War I, but rather the top four most dangerous types of food places for people with severe nut allergies to go to. In no particular order, they are as follows; ice cream shops, bakeries, candy stores and dining halls. Ice cream shops because they often do not sterilize the scooper and cross-contamination between peanut butter ice cream and other flavors can easily occur. Bakeries because nut-containing desserts are often made on the same equipment as other products. Candy stores because there are usually not ingredients printed for each item. And dining halls for a combination of the three previous reasons; the risks of cross-contamination, shared equipment and/or the lack of posted ingredients. This is not to say that all ice cream shops, bakeries, candy stories and dining halls are a no-no for people with severe nut allergies. It is just to say that they are places that should be preceded with caution and careful consideration.
Upon coming to Boston College, I knew that it contained one of the “Big Four”: dining halls. Both my parents and I were apprehensive about dealing with my various food allergies here. I was aware of everything that was safe to eat at home, but going to a new place with new foods was a notion that gave us all some worry. I had never really eaten in a large dining hall before, and was anxious to know what I could eat, as well as how carefully BC Dining handles food allergies. Before moving in my parents and I joked about how I was going to have to find the “peanut-free” table at the dining hall. The “peanut-free” table is one of my childhood memories that I cringe to look back at. Back in elementary school I was forced by the school nurse to sit at this table. Although it probably was not, my haunted mind remembers it as being isolated in the deep, dark corner of the lunchroom. I was allowed to bring only one friend to sit with me, and I was even required to eat my lunch on a special placemat given to me by the school nurse that read, “NO PEANUTS” in bold, black letters and had pictures of dancing peanuts with fat red X’s over them. In short, it was humiliating.
After moving in freshman year I met with Kathryn Sweeney, one of the nutritionists here at Boston College with a speciality in food allergies. After meeting with her, I felt so much more at ease. She gave me various handouts on what foods/stations were safe given my specific allergies and even added me to a food allergy focus group. And although I was slightly humiliated at the time, I got a detailed tour of the stations at Mac dining hall as well as the kitchens in the back to show me just how careful they are with how cook their foods. Fun fact: there is a secret fridge in the back he showed me that is filled with allergen-free foods, and I was informed that I am have special permission to walk back and grab stuff from it whenever I liked.
Allergies are one of those things that most people don’t think twice about. Yet I’d like to think that having them, and many of them in my case, has made me much more careful and apt to pay attention to the details.