Moms Talk is part of a Vienna Patch initiative to reach out to moms, parents and families in Vienna.
Grab a cup of coffee and settle in as we start the conversation today about food allergies in schools.
Raise your hand if your child or the child of someone you know has a food allergy.
Everybody’s hands are up, right? Have you caught yourself thinking or saying lately, “Gee, it sure seems like a lot of kids have food allergies these days. I don’t remember that when I was a kid…”? I know I have.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that food allergies among children under 18 have indeed increased each year over the last decade and a half. It is estimated that 3.9 percent of children and 2 percent of adults currently have some type of food allergy. As with most health-related issues, education and information is the key to understanding the needs of kids with potentially life-threatening conditions. It is critical for all parents to be informed—those who have kids with food allergies AND those who don’t.
A food allergy occurs when a person’s body behaves as if a particular food is harmful; it is an abnormal immune response. The cause of food allergies and the reason for the increase is not known and this can be frustrating for people because we generally like mysteries to be solved and questions to be answered. Not having the answer can also lead people to cast blame for or doubt about the problem, which is counterproductive and does not make food allergies any less real.
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report that only eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions: milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Many food allergy reactions appear mild or minor—localized hives and itchy tongue, for example. This can be misleading. An allergic reaction can be sudden and severe; it can progress in a life-threatening manner even in an individual who previously had only mild reactions. Swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, vomiting, coughing and wheezing, and loss of consciousness can occur. An anaphylactic reaction can be fatal.
There is no cure for food allergies. There is no preventative medication or treatment. The only way to manage food allergies is to avoid the allergens themselves to attempt to prevent reactions. We do not currently have adequate statistics on the number of deaths due to food allergies because of the way data is collected. Often the cause of death is not documented correctly. It is not required to report fatal allergic reactions to the CDC as is true for deaths due to many other types of diseases so they can maintain accurate records.
Parents of children with food allergies live with a lot of unknowns. It is not always clear what exactly is causing a reaction, or how severe the reaction will be. I know a child who will break out in hives all over his body upon merely brushing his skin across a piece of fabric where someone at some point had previously touched it with an allergen on his or her hands (i.e., someone just ate a peanut butter sandwich and then touched the couch without washing hands first). I know another child who, after putting a food sample in her mouth at a grocery store and then realizing it had something crunchy in it (pecan pieces) and spitting it out, immediately experienced an itchy tongue and within minutes had developed hives all over her face, head, and neck and began wheezing. Both of these children had these reactions without even actually ingesting the allergen. It seems reasonable to me that the parents of children with these types of food allergies would be concerned generally for their children’s health and in particular, about what they will experience in a public school setting.
School systems face many challenges in serving their primary function—providing high quality instruction to diverse learners. In meeting that goal, school systems also face myriad other challenges simply due to the logistics of schooling (e.g., health, disability, nutrition, transportation, community involvement). Despite this burden, many districts have made great strides in addressing the needs of children with food allergies. Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) have some district-wide policies that address the management of students with food allergies, such as the creation of an Individualized Health Plan for a student with food allergies with input from the parents, school public health nurse, and school staff and training of a minimum number of staff members in the administration of an Epi-pen. FCPS encourages information-sharing and communication between parents and school staff to ensure everyone is aware of the needs of students with food allergies.
In FCPS and many other districts, however, many of the specific day-to-day policies that involve food in the school setting are left up to individual principals. This results in variation among FCPS schools in the extent to which students with food allergies are protected. For example, some school cafeterias have a nut-free table, others do not. Some schools may have a policy against celebrating birthdays in the classroom with parent-brought cakes and treats, which can often contain nuts, nut products, or other allergens, but most probably continue to allow this practice. This variation can be frustrating and scary for a parent of a child with food allergies. FAAN provides a great resource to parents on how to work with schools to manage food allergies in the school setting.
There are three primary policies that I would advocate for at the school level: 1) providing a nut-free table in the cafeteria; 2) making it a routine procedure for students and adults to wash hands after eating; and 3) banning food from the classroom for parties. I think that the health of children, even a minority of children, is more important than others’ preferences. Also, the last two policies are actually good for children who do not have food allergies. I know that last one is hard because it seems like such a part of our culture to be able to bring treats for your child’s class for his or her birthday. I would argue that it is actually a great idea considering First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign due to the childhood obesity epidemic and the loss of instructional time that class parties represent.
I know it might not be as simple as I am portraying here. Perhaps some people think there should be a rule banning all eight top allergens at schools. That would be extreme. But perhaps others think that no accommodations should be made at all for children with food allergies in public schools and I would argue that that is equally extreme. So how can we create a compromise that will provide the safest reasonable environment for all of our children?
Parents of children with food allergies—how do you think food allergies should be managed in the public school setting?
Parents or community members without kids with food allergies—is it possible to try to walk in the shoes of someone who deals with the uncertainty of this condition every day? How do you think it should be managed in the school setting?
Older children and teens—what do you think? What has your experience been with this issue?