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Moms Talk: Food Allergies in the School Setting

Parents weigh in on how allergies are treated in Fairfax County Public Schools, and if it's enough

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?

iy May 13, 2011 at 01:28 AM
My daughter is allergic to all nuts. We discovered her allergy when she was 9-months old and we kissed her after having nuts. She has never ingested nuts, but had several reactions to it and her reactions get progressively worse. This allergy trend is indeed worrisome. She currently attends a private kindergarten, where with smaller class sizes and no-nut lunch policy, we feel comfortable sending her. However, we are planning to send her to FCPS starting in September (1st grade) and are quite worried about how safe she will be when she is without us at school. In Canada, public schools have adopted a no-nut policy. I'm sure it helps take stress off children, parents, and educators. This is a huge safety issue for these kids who suffer from life-threatening allergies.
Allergy Annie May 13, 2011 at 12:40 PM
More open dialogue like this is needed so feedback can be collected from the community. When I saw your "Submit a Tip", I thought it was for suggestions on how to handle this issue, rather than submit ideas for future stories but this comments section provides a forum to do so so here we go! I have two suggestions: 1) designate one allergy day per week where all kids are allowed to have PBJ, Nutella and allergen-containing foods so that those with allergies know in advance and can be segregated during lunch and measures of extra vigilance such as hand-washing and mouth-rinsing can be implemented on that one day only so everyone feels like they are being considered; 2) you talk about simple solutions, and I have one. CLEAR ALLERGY LABELS are easy-to-read and can be displayed in front of foods served at the cafeteria so that everyone knows what they're eating. Using these "Nut-free; Dairy-free; Gluten-free; etc" labels can take the risk out of serving and fear out of eating. I would welcome the chance to work with allergy support groups and advocates to implement simple measures like this in schools.
Melissa S. May 13, 2011 at 02:59 PM
As a mother of two children with different food allergies (FAs), I am actually of the rare opinion that the FAs have been something of a blessing for us. Having to be careful about what's in every food that comes near our children has not only saved us a fortune in the restaurant, takeout, and prepared foods that we would no doubt have consumed out of convenience, but it's also made us a LOT more conscientious about the consumption of junk food, and label-reading in general. So to that end, I echo the point made in the article that food in the classroom is not only a hazard to FA kids, it's a hazard to every child who's fighting to stay healthy--maintaining weight, managing diabetes, etc. When my then peanut-allergic daughter started preschool, I found that I didn't object to the myriad cupcake-centric birthday celebrations because of the FA risk (the school was nut-free, and I could always bring a "safe" separate treat for my daughter); I just objected to having cupcakes at 10 am so often! As a society, we are entirely too food-centric, and there are so many other ways to "celebrate" any occasion that we really ought to be teaching our children better habits right from the beginning. My kids regularly choose fruits and veggies over other snacks, and I am crossing my fingers they won't follow me into sugar addiction. All kids would benefit from a no-food-in-the-classroom policy, and I say that as the mother of a rising kindergartner who has (thankfully) outgrown her FA.
BF May 15, 2011 at 06:23 PM
As the mother of a food allergic child, I appreciate the writer's sense of empathy towards the kids and parents who deal with this issue – she clearly “gets it”. To me, that empathy and understanding is one of the missing pieces of the puzzle in keeping food allergic kids safe at school. FCPS has a county-wide policy for handling food allergies; however it is evident that policy and practice in our county are very different things. Each school, and even each classroom, handles food allergies in their own way. It is a totally subjective practice, and as parents we are at the whim on our school boundary line whether we are districted into a school that “gets it”. I am in full agreement with the other comments on this post that celebrations at school should not be centered on food. No cupcakes, candy, cookies – period. That seems like such as easy solution – not only for food allergies, but for health in general. I personally feel that the FCPS school board is scared to change the policy in fear of a backlash from parents who claim “freedom of cupcakes.” It is going to take a total mind-shift for any change to take place.
Chandra May 18, 2011 at 06:26 PM
Thank you, everyone, for your comments! I appreciate everyone's input and thoughts on this topic. I know FCPS created a committee that included members of the community with the task of examining their food allergy policies/practices, researching other district examples of food allergy policies, and recommending changes for FCPS. The committee met regularly this past school year. My understanding is that efforts of that committee have stalled due to disagreement about how to proceed. If anyone knows more about that or anything else, please share! Again, thank you for reading and commenting.

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