You may not remember peanut-free lunch tables from your own school days or having to send in allergy-free treats to school parties. That doesn’t mean your memory has failed you. Rather, those things may not have been emphasized at the school you attended because food allergies weren’t nearly as common as they are today.
Consider these statistics shared by FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education):
- Food allergies in children rose by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011
- Peanut/tree nut allergies more than tripled in U.S. children between 1997 and 2008
- 1 out of every 13 children has food allergies (roughly two in every school class)
- 40 percent of children with food allergies react to more than one food
If your child is heading back to school with food allergies, you are likely a little nervous—and justifiably so. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nearly 18% of food-allergic children have had a reaction from accidentally eating trigger foods while at school.
As a parent, you may worry that your child will eat reaction-causing foods, that they won’t get to their epi-pen in time, or that other kids will pick on your child for their food allergies.
But even though you can’t be at your child’s side during the school day to help them navigate life with food allergies, there are a number of ways to prepare. Consider the tips below, which can help you worry less and help your child stay healthy and enjoy their school experience to the fullest.
1. Educate your Child
Your child is closest to their food allergies, so the more they know, the better off they’ll be. Your methods here will vary depending on the child’s age. If they’re young, you can make sure that they understand what foods can elicit allergic reactions. You can also make a rule that they never eat anything unless it is packed in their lunch or unless they talk to their teacher at school (assuming the teacher is well-informed about their allergies). If they are older, you can help them learn to read food labels and point out taboo ingredients.
Teach your child about keeping their epi-pen accessible and how and when to use it. You should also teach them how to explain their food allergies to others through role-playing exercises. This will give them greater confidence, help them be pro-active about their own safety, and teach them to own the issue rather than being embarrassed about it.
2. Schedule a Meeting
Before the school year starts, schedule a meeting with the appropriate staff members at the school. Remember that faculty can change from year to year, so even if you had a meeting last year, it might not be a bad idea to request a recap meeting.
The meeting could include the principal, food service manager, lunchroom monitors, school nurse, bus driver, and, especially, your child’s teacher.
3. Do Your Homework
Your meeting will be far more productive if you are prepared. This Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan from FARE is a great place to start. Fill it out with the help of a physician, and present it at the meeting. The form gives specific instructions about who to contact in case of emergency and when and how epinephrine should be stored and administered. You should ensure that the staff members who will be working closest with your child are able to administer the epinephrine in case of emergency. This procedure can be taught at the meeting or at a special training session afterward.
You should also understand federal food allergy-related recommendations for educational institutions. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a document known as Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs. Get familiar with this document so you can see what has been recommended for schools around the country in dealing with food allergies.
Specific guidelines from this document include:
- Assigning staff members who have close contact with the allergic child to administer epinephrine (and training them to do so)
- Providing cafeteria menus to families in advance
- Training school bus employees to handle food allergy emergencies
- Designating food storage areas in the classroom for foods brought from home to avoid cross-contamination
- Teaching school officials to identify signs that a food-allergic student is being bullied
4. Make a Plan
Every student with a medical condition, including food allergies, should have an Individual Health Care Plan (IHCP). The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan referenced above can help establish this plan.
You may also want to go one step further and develop a 504 plan. This is a standard plan for kids with disabilities of any sort and ensures that they have equal access to education. Not all parents choose to have a 504 plan for their child’s allergies, but it can be very helpful in detailing exactly what accommodations should be made for your child, including special provisions for field trips, lunchroom seating, and storage of their epinephrine. Talk to your school’s 504 plan coordinator to get the ball rolling on this. (You may want to request that they attend the meeting mentioned in tip 2.)
5. Make Provisions for Special Occasions
Class parties and field trips are all part of the school experience, but if your child can’t participate, it’s easy for them to feel excluded and isolated from their peers.
Talk to your child’s teacher about how to handle these occasions. Will someone be prepared to handle an allergy attack if it occurs on a field trip bus or on the field trip itself? Does the teacher offer food-based incentives such as pizza parties that would be problematic for your child’s wheat or dairy allergy? If so, work with your teacher to establish non-food incentives.
You can also discuss holiday parties and birthday celebrations. For example, if your child has a peanut allergy, you can request that parents sending in treats opt for peanut-free foods (or those that weren’t manufactured in facilities that might contain peanuts).
Once you’ve made these initial preparations, keep communicating throughout the school year. If new staff members come on board who will be working with your child, make sure that they are educated about your child’s allergies and the official plan for managing them.
You should also stay in close contact with your child’s teacher (and instructional aide, if applicable) since they will be the one who will be with your child the most. Studies show that one-third of students with food allergies are bullied. Learn the warning signs of food-allergy bullying and ensure that your child’s teacher is familiar with them, too. That way, they can alert you of any social concerns that they may see.
Be respectful—while it’s important to advocate for your child, being overly demanding or adversarial can sour the relationship and make it difficult to work together for the good of your child.
Some parents have also found it beneficial to communicate with their child’s classmates. When kids understand what their peers are up against, they are more likely to be empathetic and accepting.
Food allergies don’t have to interfere with your child’s school experience. With diligence and good communication skills, you can develop a strong rapport with the school faculty and ensure that your child has a safe, happy, and enriching school year.
Talk to your doctor for more information, and you should also ask about SLIT or sublingual immunotherapy for food allergies. SLIT can help desensitize the body to food allergens so that kids can live happier and safer lives free of the trauma of food allergies.