"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say "It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem." Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."
— Fred Rogers
For children across North America, Valentine’s Day means classroom parties with boxes and buckets filled with candy-laced valentines. But for children with food allergies, food-focused holidays can leave them feeling anxious and isolated. Parents of allergic children are left to negotiate a safe environment with those who may not be familiar with the reality of food allergies. With this in mind, I’ve prepared the following list with some key points that teachers and parents should know about food allergic children.
1. Food Allergies Can Be Fatal. Children with food allergies have had severe and even fatal reactions from trace amounts. Children have died consuming foods served with utensils that were cross contaminated with traces of milk or peanut.
2. May Contain… Any food can be an allergen, yet in the United States, only the eight major allergens have to be labeled. In addition, a product can be processed on lines with potent allergens like peanuts or tree nuts and the warning labels (i.e. “may contain”) are voluntary.
3. Where Will It End? Once an allergic reaction starts, there is no way to tell how it will progress. A mild reaction can progress to a life-threatening one within minutes. There is no way to predict the course of any allergic reaction.
4. Balancing Act We realize you’ve known other parents whose child had a “mild peanut allergy” and that child was allowed to eat “X” or do “X” so you believe that is safe. They may have been lucky! We allergy parents take the utmost care in balancing our child’s need for safety with her need to live a “normal” life. There are no do-overs here, so please trust our judgment.
5. The Way We Were. We were once adults who helped themselves from anything that looked good on the buffet table, and often we were the parent who was happy when someone handed our child a free cookie from the bakery counter. We understand that you may see us as anxious and over-the-top, but we live in a different reality than you do. So when we ask our child to politely decline your homemade cookies, it’s not personal. Until you live in the allergy world, or very close to it, you can’t imagine the myriad of ways that an innocent food can become deadly for someone with food allergies.
6. Sticky Fingers To you, a classroom party is all about fun so you don’t see why you can’t tape those adorable peanut butter hearts to your daughter’s valentines. To us, classroom parties are a minefield of unsafe treats, with twenty 6-year-olds with sticky fingers contaminating desks, pencils and books. Even if an allergic child doesn’t mistakenly eat an allergenic food, there is still a risk of him putting a trace amount into his mouth or eyes which can cause a reaction.
7. Do the Math. Up to 79 percent of allergic reactions in school requiring epinephrine occur in the classroom! In fact, any activity outside of the day-to-day routine creates additional risk. Parties and classroom celebrations pose even more risk with untrained adults (classroom parents) preparing, touching and serving homemade foods, including desserts and baked goods, which is the food group that causes most anaphylactic reactions.
8. Real World We know that our child will eventually be an adult who has to manage his allergies on this own. He will also have a car payment and a mortgage and he’ll hold down a full time job—but not in second grade! We realize that gradually handing over the responsibility is one of our most important parenting tasks, but we have to do so with care. We do not have the luxury of allowing our children to "learn a lesson" with the wrong food.
9. There is No Cure. Word of a potential cure was all over the news, but these treatments are experimental and have only been conducted on a handful of children. At this time, there is no widely available treatment for food allergies other than emergency medicine –epinephrine. (Epi-Pen ®) This is not the same as taking aspirin for a headache. This is medicine to save a life and after administering the Epi-Pen our child must be transported to the emergency room. Naturally, we want to do everything in our power to prevent our child from the trauma of this type of reaction.
10. Think Ahead. Imagine what would happen in your school district if an allergic child consumed an unsafe candy or cross contaminated snack at a classroom party, and she suffered a severe anaphylactic reaction. It seems likely that administrators would insist that all food served in that classroom be made safe for allergic children from that point forward. As it happens, several of the states that have passed food allergy guidelines have done so after an anaphylactic reaction claimed the life of one of their students. When a tragedy like this happens, we all suffer: the teachers, the administrators, the parents and the children. So, the next time your child’s snack choices are limited at a classroom party, think about why that might be and if it’s really too much to ask.
There will come a time in each of our lives when we find ourselves needing the help of another. For allergy parents, our time of need is when our children are small.
It may not be your child or your problem, but trust me, there are many sets of little eyes on you, watching you model accommodation for those children who long to be included in classroom celebrations. If you are one of those parents who goes the extra mile to bring the “safe” brand of chips or chocolate, or who tapes trinkets to your child’s Valentine cards instead of candy, then you are my hero too. I truly hope that someday I can return the favor!