Food allergies are incredibly scary. They are scary as a parent and as a teacher. Every year I have had at least one student with a food allergy severe enough to warrant an EpiPen. Luckily, I never needed to use it. Even so, it was very stressful to ensure that those students did not accidentally come into contact with their allergens. Being a teacher of students with severe food allergies certainly taught me a lot and colored my perspective on food allergies in the classroom.
Now, I have a one year old son who was diagnosed with an egg and dairy allergy. We unfortunately learned the hard way, when he ate some scrambled eggs for breakfast and we ended up at the ER about thirty minutes later. It was terrifying and I am so grateful that he is okay. Now I have one of those kids with an EpiPen that I used to stress so much over as a teacher.
As a teacher and a parent of kids with food allergies, here are two things ALL parents (even those whose kids don’t have allergies) need to know…
1. Many Classrooms Are NOT Allergen Free
This always surprised and annoyed me. The first school I taught at in Connecticut had nut-free classrooms. There were no nuts permitted and this was made clear to parents that they could not send nut products to school. The school I worked at up until my son’s birth had no such policy. In fact, it was the opposite. They would not allow allergen-free classrooms. You also weren’t allowed to separate students who had severe allergies. I completely understand the idea that we do not want to isolate students because of allergies. I would not want that for my son either. However, in my school we would cluster students together to be sure that students always had someone like them around. It could be gender, race, ESL, SPED, and we also clustered food allergies. One year, I had four peanut allergies. I was carrying around more EpiPens than you could imagine! With four severe food allergies, I was not allowed to write a letter to parents asking them to avoid sending in nut products and I was not allowed to seat those four kids together at a different table during snack (I did anyway :)).
Many parents assume if there is a food allergy they would know about it and would be told to avoid sending in certain food products or that special accommodations and seating arrangements would be made for the student(s) with allergies. Truthfully, I think if your child doesn’t have a food allergy you probably aren’t thinking about it at all (no parent has time for that!).
I’m making this first point so ALL parents know that their child’s foods and choices could be potentially dangerous for other students in class. In my schools we always had a policy that students could not share food. This policy was instated because of food allergies. It is a fantastic policy, but it is incredibly difficult to enforce. Many young children know nothing about food allergies. They also do not know that sharing just one tiny nut or piece of chocolate could seriously endanger a classmate.
If you have a child attending school, with or without food allergies, I urge you to sit down and talk with him/her about food allergies and why we don’t share food. Do not count on the school’s policies to keep these kids safe alone.
There are fantastic children’s books about food allergies. These would be perfect to read with your child to discuss the importance of keeping all kids safe in the classroom.
2. School Celebrations Can Be Dangerous and Isolating
Most schools allow birthday celebrations during snack time and other celebrations throughout the year. Food is typically the highlight of these celebrations. If your child does not have food allergies, it can be easy to forget that some kids do and how this affects their classroom celebrations.
If you are bringing in food for a class celebration, teachers always feel more comfortable with a store-bought item that clearly lists the ingredients and allergens. The teacher can then decide if students with allergies can eat the food. I would also recommend that you try to bring in foods that are mostly allergen-free. At least try to stay away from the more common allergies like nuts. You could also provide a few snack options. My son wouldn’t be able to eat the cupcakes with eggs and milk, but he could eat pretzels. I realize this takes a lot of forethought, but I can tell you how happy it makes kids with allergies when they are able to partake in the food aspect of celebrations just like their friends. They truly light up.
If you are a parent of a child with food allergies, I would recommend you send in a fun treat that your child can eat for each celebration or at the beginning of the school year. I have had many students with food allergies, but I have only ever had ONE parent think to do this! At the beginning of the school year she brought in a box of cookies and said to give her daughter three cookies anytime we had a birthday celebration. Brilliant! She was safe and was never left out. I have never forgotten this idea and how important it was to make sure her daughter was able to feel safely included. Now, as a parent of a boy with food allergies, you can guarantee I will do the same.
I hope that these two pieces of information will get you thinking. All too frequently we are wrapped up in our own lives and situations and we fail to think of other’s experiences (I am definitely guilty of this). Taking the time to talk to your child about food allergy safety or changing the food products you bring into birthday celebrations can make a tremendous difference in the safety and happiness of those kids living with allergies.
Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts on food allergies and school!