For the majority of University of Wisconsin students, eating in dining halls or restaurants around campus is not a danger to their health, but for students with food allergies such places can pose life threatening challenges.
UW freshman Cosette Facktor lives with a severe peanut allergy, and said she almost died from eating food at Badger Market. Food she presumed to be safe came in contact with peanuts, and she went into anaphylactic shock.
Her throat closed, her whole body itched, her tongue and lips swelled and she fell into unconsciousness.
Following her recovery in the hospital, Facktor met with Housing staff about her concerns, specifically the location of peanut butter jars by the cash register.
Facktor said she suggested moving the peanut butter jars a few feet in another direction so students with peanut allergies are less impacted.
After listening to her suggestions, which Facktor said received promising responses, she got an e-mail saying no changes would be made.
“The most frustrating part is that one of the campus food distributors…almost killed me and you’d think they’d feel bad, but they completely pushed off my concerns to the point where they wouldn’t move a jar of peanut butter,” Facktor said.
While Facktor did notify UW of her allergy – even before she arrived on campus – she said she’s never experienced problems with eating in cafeterias, despite the severity of her allergy.
“I trusted that everything would be okay,” she said.
UW officials said they could not talk about Facktor’s case because she did not give consent, which privacy laws require.
Another UW student who expressed concern when arriving on campus, senior Matt Bozile, said he hasn’t had an allergic reaction in his time at UW.
Bozile is allergic to dairy products, beef, wheat, eggs and nuts, which severely limited the food he could eat in the dining halls.
While there were some food items he could have, Bozile said his main concern was cross-contamination via unclean pans.
He said the food itself might not have contained anything he’s allergic to, but if the pan used to cook his food was used previously with butter, for example, then he’d have a reaction.
“There’s a decent amount of things they make I can eat. If they use a clean pan it’d open up more options,” Bozile said.
Rather than eating in the dining halls, Bozile cooked his own food at Merit House. After inquiring about accommodations for students with food allergies, he was put in Merit House specifically for the kitchen, he said.
Living with his allergies is not as bad now as when he was younger, Bozile said, especially in elementary and middle school when pizza parties were all the rage.
“Since I’ve been older it’s not that big of a problem,” Bozile said. “I’m real careful.”
Precautions in place
UW is aware of the obstacle eating safe food can be for students with allergies, and does the best they can to accommodate as many of these students as they can, Director of Dining and Culinary Services Joie Schoonover said.
For students who “self-identify,” or tell UW they have an allergy and are concerned about having a reaction, UW has the student sit down with a dietician to go over a list of all the ingredients used in the food, Schoonover said.
In addition, a list of ingredients is online so students can use it whenever they’re planning meals, Associate Director of Dining and Culinary Services Julie Luke said. Place cards detailing ingredients are located by each food item as well.
The place cards are updated and printed off daily, which Luke said is worth the extra cost to ensure the information is as up-to-date as possible.
The main problem for Housing is the number of students who come forward with concerns, Luke said. Out of all the students on campus, 20 to 30 have currently come forward, she said.
Housing is concerned about cross-contamination of pans, but cannot guarantee everything will be safe, Schoonover and Luke said.
“I think that’s always a concern…because we have the eight allergens in the kitchen all the time and we’ve never claimed to be a nut-free zone or a wheat-free zone,” Schoonover said.
These eight major allergens are soy, milk, seafood, tree nuts, wheat, ground nuts, eggs and fish, Luke said. Tree nuts include walnuts, while ground nuts include peanuts, she added.
Union food director Carl Korz said all Union food units have similar precautions in place, with master ingredient lists at the front of the line and managers trained to find the answer should students ask questions.
The Union tries to prepare for every type of allergic reaction, from people who have a slight irritation from smelling a food to those who are deathly allergic, Korz said.
He added the Union serves more than 10,000 people each day, and while they keep the customer in mind, change doesn’t always come easily.
“We have an obligation to meet as many concerns as we can, but it can be difficult to change a massive operation,” Korz said.
Another key to both facilities are cards notifying customers that “This product prepared in a facility using (name allergen here).” Korz and Luke said the signs are placed by the food item, so customers have no confusion.
Kathy Glass, associate director of UW’s Food Research Institute, said avoiding the eight common allergens is incredibly difficult, and the only ways to ensure people know about the ingredients in their food is to label everything clearly.
“Like any other food service…if people are going to be able to provide a variety of foods, it’s almost impossible to avoid,” Glass said.
People themselves need to be proactive to understand what they’re eating, Glass said.
Currently, the Union is looking at more options for those with food allergies, Korz said. He said he’s currently looking into getting gluten-free flatbread for one of the units in the new Union South.
While the future is still unknown, Korz said he thinks the systems currently in place have succeeded.
Housing is planning to have food labels for everything they serve in all units by December, so if students have specific questions they can have them answered immediately, Schoonover said.