Words by Neville Hardman

Photo by Neville Hardman.

Jars of it line the shelves of every grocery store. It’s found in nearly every household, usually half-eaten, with a dirty, golden-brown-smeared knife lying in the sink. It’s lathered onto toast in thick globs, crunchy or smooth. You’re not going to impress Suzy Q at recess because the smell is on your hands even though you used a napkin (the smell never really goes away unless you wash your hands twice.) It tastes just like it smells—overwhelming—and will have you desperately wanting water if you cram too much of it in your mouth at once.

Nearly three million people in the U.S. don’t know the feeling of eating peanut butter because they’ve reported allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. To accommodate students who have food allergies, Kent State has made an effort to include more safe spaces to eat on campus.

“Even just the littlest amount can strike a reaction, so when those things happen, it does wind up ruining the rest of my day.” – Courtney Kennell

These new safe spaces are beneficial for students like Courtney Kennell, a sophomore theatre studies major, who must choose carefully while eating on campus. As someone who is lactose intolerant, she faces difficulty picking foods to eat because she has to be aware of everything she consumes. When buying packaged food, students can check for allergens from ingredients listed on the box or wrapper. When ordering food served behind a counter, however, students must take more caution because the ingredients are not always listed, and students have to ask for them.

Kennell can determine if a food has dairy in it if it looks creamy, but there are items such as dressings and sauces that have milk in them and she’s unable to tell until after she’s already consumed it, she says. Her body’s inability to digest lactose causes stomach pain, sometimes causing her to miss the rest of her classes for the day, even if she were to only eat a single slice of cheese pizza.

“Even just the littlest amount can strike a reaction, so when those things happen, it does wind up ruining the rest of my day,” Kennell says.

Because ingredients aren’t always readily available, students have to ask servers and managers what goes into their food to make sure they don’t suffer a reaction. Kennell says she feels she makes staff “go out of their way” when she has to ask if a product has dairy in it, and she often worries people around her think she’s trying to make a spectacle of herself.

“By doing that, you make yourself look like you want the attention and that the whole world revolves around you, and creating that idea in someone’s head is not exactly healthy or good for business,” she says.

However, Dining Services encourages students like Kennell to come forward and ask questions about food that isn’t marked. Students are welcome to pop into their office located inside of the Student Center to discuss specific allergies or concerns. Megan Cascaldo, a manager for Dining Services, says the team noticed students with allergies were in need of places to dine safely, and new programs were born.

Programs such as Simple Servings breathed life in January 2015, offering food to students who live on campus Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in Eastway Cafe. This service aimed to provide hearty meals toward students who have specific food allergies, making the food without common allergens such as peanuts, shellfish, wheat, soy, milk and eggs within a separate prep area to avoid cross-contamination. Recipe books also popped up around campus, like on top of the downstairs dessert cart in Prentice Café and within Munchies.

“In each of the dining facilities we have an executive chef and then at least one or two managers depending on the facility, so students can always feel free to grab any of the white coats or the chefs [or] any of the managers,” Cascaldo says. “They can reach out to them with any questions they have.”

“It feels like your body is destroying you.” – Keven Smith

Kristen Barath, a nurse practitioner who works at the University Health Center, says the most common allergy students come into the center for are caused from peanuts. Kevin Smith, a freshman exploratory major, has a peanut allergy, but he’s become aware of foods that might contain peanuts through his senses, so he’s able to avoid trips to the Health Center.

The university does not have a policy prohibiting peanut butter. Although most students pipe up before whipping out a package of peanut butter crackers from their backpack in a lecture hall, they’re not required to. Kent Market 2 offered a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich bar in the spring, which emanated the smell past the glass barrier.

“It’s a really dark, utterly revolting smell or taste…so it’s really easy for me to know if something has peanuts,” Smith says. “It has a really distinctive taste.”

However, if he does eat a peanut, it will come back up instantly. While he knows when to stop eating, he still feels the effects afterwards. “My throat closes up,” Smith says. “It’s never to the point where I feel like I’m suffocating, but it’s definitely noticeable.”

This also causes a tightened stomach, shocks of pain and feeling sick immediately after, he says. “It feels like your body is destroying you,” Smith says.

Aaron Schneider, a sophomore managerial marketing major, is another student who faces food allergies: He’s allergic to processed rice, which includes white, fried and rice wrapped in sushi rolls.

“Because it’s not a super common allergy, not too many people worry about it, and I’ve learned to deal with it and know what I can eat and what I can’t eat,” Schneider says.

Schneider doesn’t buy foods such as breakfast cereals—including his favorite cereal, Fruity Pebbles—granola bars or protein bars when shopping with his meal plan because they contain rice flour, which he learned by scanning the ingredients. He can, however, eat brown rice because it’s more natural, and he sticks to wheat breads as well, he says.

“When I first eat [rice] I’ll feel fine—especially if I don’t know that I’m eating it—but then about a half hour later, I’ll start feeling really queasy, and it just progresses from there,” Schneider says.

He remembers an incident when his mother, who’s gluten-free, gave him leftovers from a restaurant. He ate half a portion of spaghetti that was made with rice noodles before he noticed he was in the beginning stages of an allergic reaction.

His reactions start with getting sick, followed by aches and spasms for the next day, he says. Unlike a fatal reaction, Schneider’s life is not put in danger from his allergy, but he still looks at ingredients in order to prevent a possible reaction.

Reactions can turn serious quickly, including symptoms such as lip swelling, tongue swelling and overall facial swelling, Barath says. Other symptoms can involve itching, rashes and trouble breathing, like wheezing, she says.

A more serious reaction is anaphylactic shock, or anaphylaxis, which occurs when someone experiences a potentially fatal reaction. Breathing and blood circulation become compromised, indicated by signs such as a weak pulse, weakness, fainting or pale appearance, according to Food Allergy Research & Education.

Students who experience any reactions can go to the Deweese Health Center for immediate attention.

“Right away we just call 911, and then we start giving some medicine,” Barath says. “We usually give Epi in a shot and then we give Benadryl.”

Epinephrine, or Epi when referring to the trademarked product EpiPen, is a shot of adrenaline that helps prevent breathing airways from closing and stops allergic reactions, Barath says. If a reaction is less serious, the center will provide Benadryl and watch to make sure the reaction goes down until the student is doing well enough to be sent home, she says.

“[Students are] hyperventilating. Their heart’s racing. They’re scared,” Barath says. She also says oxygen masks are available for use if students feel they still can’t breathe after taking medicine. The Health Center encourages students to stay until they feel confident their reaction has stopped, she says.

While other dining areas lack programs like Simple Servings, Cascaldo says ingredient listings for food prepared in the kitchen will start to show up, slowly putting an end to unmarked food on campus. Students can leave comments on the Dining Services website rating their on campus eating experience.

“It’s easier for us to help if we know what [students] need,” Cascaldo says.