Everything-Free Zone: Living with an Allergy

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By CHLOE LINDEMAN, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the classic American lunchtime staple. The combination of sweet and salty seems to have won over a large percentage of the population, including those at Haverford College — the Dining Center goes through a whopping 70 pounds of peanut butter a week.

But what happens when a single bite is enough to kill you?

“I kind of developed the philosophy that if I’m not sure, [I] don’t try it, don’t take any risks,” said Achint Singh (HC ’19), who has a life-threatening peanut allergy along with several other less severe allergies. “I only eat something if I’m 100% positive that it’s fine.”

Even so, Singh carries an EpiPen and Benadryl with her at all times.

Students with severe food allergies are few in number, probably just a handful out of the entire student body, but their needs necessarily steer the course of the D.C. and other food locations on campus.

According to Joe Binotto, general manager of Haverford Dining Services, the D.C. takes a number of precautions, including training its staff and labeling foods with allergens.

“We’ve only had one or two folks [whose allergies] were really severe, but most of the others have been able to find a happy medium in what we’ve done here,” said Binotto. “I’d say 99.5% … of the students who have any kind of allergy are able to navigate through the dining hall as it’s set up today without too much difficulty.”

But food allergies — including allergies to nuts, soy, milk, and others — are not the end of the story. Food intolerances, which come from fundamentally different causes, can make dining an equally stressful experience.

Allergies arise when the body’s immune system sees a particular food as a threat and sends antibodies to bind to the apparent invader. As a result, the body releases chemicals like histamine that cause inflammation, which can manifest itself as anything from mild itchiness to difficulty breathing.

Food intolerances are almost always characterized by a gastrointestinal response, often the result of missing an enzyme needed to break down certain foods. While not life threatening, they can make eating even small amounts of those food very unpleasant.

Celiac disease, a kind of gluten intolerance, is tricky because, like allergies, it involves an autoimmune response, but it is not a wheat allergy — or even an allergy at all.

According to Binotto, gluten is the prevalent food sensitivity on campus; hence the “Gluten-Free Room”, which opened a year or two ago in the West Wing of the Dining Center. Those with Celiac are also especially susceptible to cross-contamination.

“[F]or some people with Celiac, it could literally be a tiny little fleck of toast that affects their G.I. symptoms, and we want to avoid that at all costs,” said Natalie Zaparzynski, the dietician for students at Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges.

The gluten-free room isn’t just for those with Celiac disease; Zaparzynski stressed that anyone with a severe allergy or other nutritional need can request access. But it’s not always helpful.

“Because I’m allergic to so many other things … I eat a lot of [wheat], a lot of carbs, I really need it,” said Singh. “In gluten free bread, there’s also soy, and things I can’t eat, so that doesn’t make sense.

“Just because I have food allergies doesn’t mean I’m gluten free and we can all use the same stuff.”

Still, Singh thinks the D.C. does well overall in terms of allergies.

In a recent survey about food allergies at Haverford conducted by Zaparzynski, about half of the respondents with allergies had scheduled to meet with her at least once.

All incoming first-years fill out a food accommodations form to can help identify students who might have special dietary needs. Students can also schedule an appointment with Zaparzynski at any time during the semester.

“I’m really the student advocate for change that needs to be made in the dining center,” said Zaparzynski. “I want to make sure that students’ needs are met, [but] if I hear nothing, no news — I assume — is good news.”

Though Zaparzynski won’t see them, suggestions can also go directly to the D.C. via napkin notes.

“I think it’s a bigger challenge for the vegans than it is for the allergen folks,” said Binetto, somewhat jokingly. “And we’re making strides there too, which is actually helping students who have gluten allergies and other allergies by adding additional components, proteins and things like that.

“So it’s good for the vegans, but it’s great for folks who have allergies too.”

For Singh, life with an allergy hasn’t been all bad.

“It kind of made me more confident, because when you have food allergies, and your parents can no longer take care of you, it’s up to you, right?,” said Singh. “Especially going to stay-away camps, sleepovers, things like that … definitely helped me become more outspoken about the allergies.”

Singh has been a teen mentor as part of the Food Allergy Research and Education. She hopes to get Haverford involved so students with food allergies have more resources.

In the meantime, Zaparzynski and the Office of Access and Disability Services serve as the primary contacts for allergy and other food-related concerns. Contact information is available on Haverford’s website.

 

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