The cover of a November Newsweek featured an article entitled "Kids and the Food Allergy Threat" accompanied by the image of a young girl holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in one hand and milk in the other while wearing a gas mask on her face. "Nobody knows precisely what causes food allergies," the article read. "A combination of genes - allergies run in families - and environment clearly play a role."
Food allergies can appear at any time, very suddenly, and can often be life-threatening. While the quote in the article is a factual statement and the depiction highlights the seriousness of food allergies, it also raises the question of how schools and families can address these issues without characterizing the kids suffering from food allergies as outcasts.
Unfortunately, children face ridicule in school for having food allergies, and shock-inducing titles like the one on the Newsweek article only perpetuate the stigma. Having the danger of food allergies and children as a cover story in a reputable national news magazine is crucial to furthering food allergy awareness, but it's also important to avoid making children with food allergies feel like outcasts.
When speaking to parents of students with food allergies, it is clear that donning fanny packs or lunch bags containing epinephrine auto-injectors, Benadryl, wipes, and other medications is not something their children relish. In fact, it makes them feel different and subject to ridicule. Further, being forced to sit at lunch with only children who also have food allergies, or being told they are not allowed to eat the special treats that other students are given, are realities that children with food allergies face every day.
This is why education is imperative, focusing not only on parents and children with food allergies, but on all school personnel and parents and students, raising awareness of how a student or school employee can identify a potential food allergy situation and differentiating the different types of food allergy sensitivities is critical to keeping every child safe in the school environment. Equally important, however, is to address the often-overlooked emotional impact that this has on students. Enhanced education on sensitivity toward children with food allergies will enable friends of students with food allergies to better relate, recognizing the differences among students in a way that will not attach a stigma or suggest that food-sensitive students need to wear protective gear or be quarantined. It is important for schools to work with parents and children to ensure not only a safe environment, but a happy and normal learning environment as well.
During the month of December, it is particularly important to be sensitive to food allergy issues in a school setting. If a school or classroom is not allergy-free for all students, it is crucial to inform parents ahead of time about special food allergy requirements, thereby reducing the risk of making treats that some students cannot enjoy, or that conceivably could be deadly for a food-sensitive student. By preparing snacks that all students can enjoy, the food allergy stigma is reduced, the risk of danger is lessened, and the holidays can be more stress-free and enjoyable for everyone.