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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

School Days Made Safer: Back to School with Food Allergies

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When I was younger, I was always so excited for the school year to begin.  I could not wait for new books and teachers.  I was thrilled as I shopped for school supplies and my beloved trapper keeper.  As I look at my daughter, who seems to be developing that same passion for learning, I ache just a little because her back to school days will be slightly different.  She has a severe peanut allergy, so returning to school means new supplies and books, but also new opportunities for a life-threatening reaction.

According to the FARE (Food Allergy Research Education), approximately 1 in 13 children have food allergies.  No matter where your child goes to school it is likely that there will be someone with a food allergy in class.  We are just beginning to navigate school days with food allergies and have learned that support from non-allergic families is absolutely critical to helping to make her school days safe.

Here are three small steps that EVERY family can take during the school year to help prevent a life-threatening reaction. 

**First, understand your school’s policy on food allergies.  Some schools have strict guidelines detailing what can and cannot be brought into the school.  There may be specific lunchroom policies or rules regarding school celebrations.  As I was researching pre-school options for my daughter, I found that policies ranged from no nut products allowed to special areas that are deemed peanut-free zones.  Taking the time to understand your school’s policy, and following through on it, will keep students safe.

**Second, work to enter the school building allergen free.  Even trace amounts of food can trigger a reaction in someone like my daughter who is severely allergic.  All parents should be sure children finish their breakfasts at home and wash their hands before leaving for the day.  Two popular breakfast items, peanut butter and milk, are also two of the top eight allergens.  If hands and mouths are still bearing the breakfast du jour they can easily transfer this “residue” to other surfaces, such as bus seats and desks.  Simply taking a few moments to wash up before you head out the door can make a difference.

**Finally, do your part to make celebrations something that every student can enjoy.  Party days are particularly anxiety producing for me.  I want my daughter to be safe, have fun, and feel included despite her food restrictions.  The support of non-allergic families is essential.  My anxiety is heightened on party days too because research shows that most reactions in schools occur from food in the classroom used for projects or celebrations.

Partner with your child’s teacher to find ways to make school celebrations safe and inclusive.  Whole fruit and non-food treats are a healthy option.  Most importantly work with your child’s teacher to understand the specific food allergies in the class and work to provide something that can be enjoyed by everyone.  I am eternally grateful to parents who call me ahead of time to discuss what my daughter can have at a party.  We identify a safe treat for everyone, or it gives me time to plan to provide a safe alternative for her the day of the party.  

As we continue to come to grips with food allergies and the new reality in which we battle daily to keep my daughter safe I am forever indebted to the friends and families who choose to partner with us to keep her safe.   My daughter has many school days in her future, which also means many opportunities for her to be exposed to peanuts.  I will educate others and plan for her safety with every ounce of energy that I have, but there are many unknowns as she walks out of our house and into the halls of education.  Knowing that other parents and students are looking out for her safety alleviates some of the stress I feel about sending her out into the world.  I want her school days to be filled with discovery and fun, not fear and exclusion.  Parents, teachers and students who are aware and actively support an allergy-friendly environment at school can help to keep those with food allergies safe.

As the new school year begins there is no shortage of things we need to do to get our children ready.  Amidst the shopping and planning, take a few moments to talk to your child about food allergies and how they can play a part in keeping everyone safe.  Discuss the practices above and commit to adopting them as a part of your school day routine.  The few minutes these things take can literally save a life.

By guest contributor: Tami

*Some of the material in this article first appeared in Tami’s article in the August/September 2012 issue of Today's Family magazine, www.todaysfamilynow.com

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