Innovative Research Partnership Addresses Needs of College Bound Students with Food Allergy

April 24, 2018

Researchers identify needs and work alongside designers to develop a toolkit to support safe transition to college for students with food allergy

As a growing number of adolescents with food allergy transition to college, an important question has emerged: how can we create safe environments that encourage students with food allergies to fully participate in campus life? To begin answering this question, an innovative team of medical researchers from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and designers from Northwestern University Segal Design Institute interviewed over 25 key stakeholders, including students, college administrators, caregivers of students with food allergy, representatives from food allergy advocacy organizations, legal professionals, first responders, dieticians, and staff from the departments of food service, risk management, and environmental health and safety.   

A recent report in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunologyhighlights key findings from these interviews on the next steps colleges can take to ensure campus safety and support students with food allergies:

  • Improve Notification Systems: Improve college notification systems regarding how a student's food allergy is communicated to his or her campus network
  • Establish Clearly-Defined Roles: Establish clearly-defined roles/responsibilities on how peers and others in the student’s college network can specifically help prevent accidental exposure to a food allergen and adequately respond to a food allergy emergency
  • Heighten Awareness:  Increase public education on college campuses regarding how to recognize signs and symptoms of a food allergy emergency and how to appropriately respond 

Based on these needs, the researchers worked with designers to develop five interventions, collectively called Spotlight, that aim to improve the safety of students with food allergy on college campuses.

“Currently most college campuses are in the early stages of creating systems and policies to support students with food allergies,” says senior author Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, from Lurie Children’s, who also is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We developed a toolkit to help college communities understand food allergy, prevent allergic reactions and respond in case of a food allergy emergency. With these interventions we hope to empower everyone from cafeteria staff to roommates and peers in clubs or sports teams, and even external food vendors on campus, to keep students with food allergy safe. The next step is to pilot and test these interventions for effectiveness.”

Food allergy affects 8 percent of children and adolescents in the United States.  Among adolescents, previous research has described increased risk-taking behaviors and a reluctance to disclose their food allergies to teachers and social networks.  These factors contribute to poor health outcomes, including an increased risk of experiencing food allergy-related fatalities on college campuses and overall impaired quality of life.   

“Future research needs to explore policy-level interventions, such as increasing access to epinephrine auto-injectors on college campuses,” says Dr. Gupta. “It will be critical to include college students with food allergy and key community stakeholders in developing future interventions.” 

Dr. Gupta is the Mary Ann and J. Milburn Smith Research Professor for a Sr. Scientist in Child Health Research at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at Lurie Children’s.

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals in the U.S.News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 208,000 children from 50 states and 58 countries.