By Nicholas Ditzler
I have never had an ice cream cone, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or pizza. I cannot say I have had apple pie. I have never eaten a Twinkie.
There must be others out there like me.
As a child, I felt lost. My family had no restrictions to what they ate and in elementary school, I was the only one who had to move to another table because someone had peanut butter. I was missing an integral part of life – a sense of belonging.
Entering middle school, I expected more of the same. To my surprise, on the very first day, there was a meeting for students with food allergies. There were only three other people in the room, but that didn’t matter to me. I had found what I wanted: others like me. I had found my community; not just a community, a family. Not four members strong, but 15 million.
Today, as a junior at the University of Michigan, food allergies affect my everyday actions, but I no longer consider them a nuisance or wonder “Why me?” This is who I am.
A quick study
When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I was surprised there was not an organization or support group available for students with food allergies. So, in July 2014, I founded the Student Food Allergy Network (SFAN): a student-run organization dedicated to spreading awareness of food allergies and fostering empowerment and change within the community.
We create and distribute educational material on campus, invite guest speakers to our biweekly meetings, and discuss common barriers associated with food allergies on campus. We’ve had the program coordinator of the University of Michigan Food Allergy Center come to a meeting and offer advice on how to correctly self-administer an epinephrine auto-injector.
In our first year of operation, SFAN opened additional chapters at Oregon State University and the University of Virginia and welcomed more than 50 members, from freshmen to graduate students.
Although there are many reasons why students join SFAN, one recurring comment I receive from members is that it provides a valuable support network. They establish bonds and friendships, and become more confident about managing food allergies on campus. We encourage members to go beyond the classroom and become advocates for each other and agents of change in communities still adjusting to the growing number of people with food allergies.
In starting SFAN, one of my goals was for the organization to serve as a resource for families with children at different stages in life. Whether kids are moving from middle school to high school, or high school to college, food allergies often make these transitions stressful.
By showing parents there are students who have gone away to college and successfully managed their food allergies – while still living a normal, active college life – we hope to relieve some of the anxiety parents face and serve as role models for students. We encourage families to contact us for perspective and advice on everything from addressing food allergies in elementary school to transitioning into college. We interact with the food allergy community through our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/StudentFoodAllergyNetwork), and we have been amazed by the positive response.
Food allergies connect individuals of all backgrounds. Although the condition is at times challenging and requires a great amount of diligence, it also provides an opportunity to learn life lessons such as the importance of clear communication and self-empowerment.
A food allergy should never define who you are, but it can help you develop a perspective that shapes the person you become.
Reviewed by Andrea Holka, Executive Director of AIRE Nebraska