Like nearly 15 million Americans, I live with life–threatening food allergies, specifically milk and nuts. One bite of an Insomnia cookie, one slice of Allegro on a Friday night, and I end up in the emergency room. 

For those living with food allergies, it’s easy to get distracted by what they can’t do. On one hand, it’s essential for me to be constantly aware of my constraints, of what I can't eat—doing so keeps me safe. But as a result, it’s easy for someone with food allergies to let this “not” define him (“to live in the Land of Not,” I like to say). The challenge is to stop allowing what we're not to blind us from all that we are. 

Last year I wrote a children’s book, Land of Not, that deals with the importance of embracing our strengths instead of being blinded by our deficits. This past summer took me on a mission to take the “can” mindset across the allergy community and beyond. I introduced the book and its surrounding initiative to schools, allergists, and pediatricians to address the challenge that faces each of us, regardless of whether or not we can drink milk: the challenge to live, not in the Land of Not, but in the Land of Can.

This was a challenge that intimidated me the summer before my freshman year. In addition to the typical nerves that plague the pre–freshman experience, I was worried that my inability to eat freely would make the transition to college harder than it needed to be. I feared that in this new environment, my food allergy would not only constrain me, but would define me.

If you’re a newcomer to Penn and you live with a dietary restriction, there’s no need to fear. Thankfully, Penn advocates for those with food allergies.

And as the Dining Guide gives the pulse of the culinary world in and around Penn, I’d figure I’d throw something in for any food–allergic newcomers as well:

Here are three tips that have made living on campus with a food allergy a little easier:

  • Establish a food routine. After you iron out which safe locations and products are your favorites, be proactive in planning when and where you are going to eat! The key is to have variety within the week, but consistency from week to week. Eat at one place every Monday night, another place every Tuesday night, etc. This variety keeps your appetite engaged, and the consistency eases the allergy burden significantly! And if you’re in need of allergy conscious recommendations, check out Spokin on the app store.
  • Be proactive with your roommate(s). Having an allergy adds a new dimension to living in close quarters with somebody else. Have a heart–to–heart with your new roommate(s) as early as possible. Discuss the importance of your allergy, and make a plan for how you're going to handle having food in the room. It is absolutely essential that your room is completely safe for you. You need a place where you can relax and sleep in comfort without having to worry about an exposure. Make sure that those who share your room are willing and able to accommodate, and if you're not comfortable with your housing arrangements, talk with the university.
  • Don't be afraid to speak up. Penn students are fortunate to have a staff that has their backs. At Penn, you have a team of chefs, nutritionists, house deans, RAs, and kitchen workers that care for you. If you're unsure about a meal at a dining hall, talk with the staff. If you're worried about food safety at an event or gathering, talk with the staff. If you see an opportunity for your allergy experience to be made easier, talk with the staff. Advocate for yourself, and use Penn as a resource to help you do so!


To learn more about Land of Not, visit or check out the write–up on Spokin!

courtesy of Bill Dussinger, J.J. Volopas


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