Find out what life is really like at Durham University

CollegesStudent experience

Student life with a food allergy

There is no doubt that over the past 20 years, the number of people in the UK living with a food allergy is increasing, and this is especially the case amongst young people. According to Allergy UK, currently, between 6 and 8% of children are thought to have a food allergy, compared with less than 3% of adults. With the rate of people ‘growing out’ of allergies remaining low, this means that the number of young people with food allergies is set to keep increasing. As a result, it will become more and more common for students to join a university with some sort of food allergy.

Living with Allergies at Uni

For those with allergies, university is an incredibly daunting experience. Full of the unknown and completely away from their previous ways of coping with their allergies, uni provides a new set of challenges. How do you let your flatmates know about your allergies? How do you make it clear that they cannot borrow your cooking equipment? How do you make sure there are people around you that know what an EpiPen is and how to use one? Starting University is stressful enough, so having to worry about all of this as well certainly makes the first few weeks incredibly difficult.

Living with life-threatening allergies whilst at university is not easy, and if I am honest, I am weirdly embarrassed about mine most of the time. I joined Josephine Butler College in 2015, and have severe allergies to sesame and tree nuts. Basically, if I were to eat something with sesame or nuts in, I would go into anaphylactic shock and require my Epipen and an ambulance trip. Despite this severity, my embarrassment meant that when I first moved into my self-catered flat at Butler, it took me almost a week to muster up the courage to let my 5 flatmates, with whom I shared a kitchen with, know about my allergies.

sharing kitchen equipment can trigger allergies

Let people know

In hindsight, this was certainly a mistake, but there is no doubt that announcing your allergies to strangers who you are now living with is an incredibly intimidating thing to do. I did not want to inconvenience the people I had just met by telling them that they had to ‘be careful with their hummus’ and that they could not, under any circumstances, use any of my cooking stuff. I did not want to be known as ‘that guy with allergies’, but at the same time, I didn’t particularly want to have a serious reaction because I hadn’t let anyone know that their snack could kill me. In the end, I finally told my flatmates and they were brilliant about it. Despite living with 4 vegetarians and vegans, who lived off a lot of nuts and hummus, I never had any issues. The kitchen was always clean and very tidy, we all respected our own cupboard and fridge space, and nobody used my cooking equipment. All in all, I learned that by communicating about my condition to my flatmates, they were able to be incredibly accommodating and as a result were a dream to live with.

University taking food allergies seriously

Towards the end of 2018, I was delighted to be involved in a University ‘Task and Finish Group’ tasked with developing Durham’s food allergy policy, not only ensuring that it was at the required standard but also looking to develop the policy beyond this. One of the key components of this group was the PPI (Patient and Public Involvement) group, where we were able to listen to Durham students with allergies, find out more about their experiences and also gather suggestions as to how best shape the policy for the future. As a result of this work, self-catered colleges will now offer the option to be placed in an ‘allergy aware flat’ (AAF). These AAFs are designed to work so that anyone with allergies, or simply has an awareness of allergies and would like to live in a clean flat, is able to show a preference to be placed in an AAF flat. If a full flat can be filled with those selecting an AAF preference, then they will be put together, and to me, this is a great breakthrough. Being in an AAF would break down the initial barrier of being worried about letting your flatmates know about your allergies, and would also ensure that you are placed in a flat with others who are aware of allergies and what you can and cannot do in the kitchen.

displaying allergen information is vital as you cannot always tell what is in a dish

I must also point out that being on this Task and Finish Group opened my eyes to the work that the University Catering Team does for those with allergies. Before joining, I was skeptical about being dependent on catered food, and so I chose Butler and self-catered life to have more control over what I ate. Now, knowing that the catered colleges provide specific food for those with allergies and that they have the allergen information on display, catered life is certainly much more appealing.

Whether catered or self-catered, I am sure that the new food allergy policy will make a significant difference to Durham students with allergies. The addition of allergy aware flats and the displaying of allergy awareness posters in shared spaces will make going to university with severe food allergies a little less daunting.

My advice for those joining university with allergies?

  1. Communicate with those you live with. If you can’t muster the courage to tell them face-to-face, then leave a note in the kitchen.
  2. Have your own sponge and tea towel for washing up, and make sure you wipe surfaces before preparing food.
  3. If you feel the need, label your food/utensils. I also brought along my own toaster to ensure no cross contamination with nutty bread etc.
  4. Always carry your medication on you and make sure it’s up to date.
  5. Try not to worry too much, but be proactive about things. Living with allergies in a shared kitchen is not easy, but it is certainly doable.

The University’s food allergen policy is here.

Tom Weston