How Can we Lower Anxiety About Food Allergies at School?

One local mom shares her ideas about what would make schools a happier, safer place for kids with food allergies.

For parents, like myself, who have a child with life-threatening food allergies, I want to be proactive— keep my child from harm rather than face an emergency.  A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Immunology estimates that nearly 80,000 children in the United States end up in the emergency room annually because of acute food-related allergic reactions.  Last year, the New York Post reported that young Brandon Dixon of Harlem died because he was mistakenly given a snack with peanuts at his school.

It’s really scary for parents and for children with food allergies. 

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Although my child has other food allergies besides peanuts, I think peanut-free schools would be a good universal solution. After all, children with peanut allergies are twice as likely to have a severe reaction than children allergic to other foods.

I was surprised to learn that experts don’t agree.  They say peanut-free schools give a false sense of security. Moreover, we want kids to understand that their allergies do not rule their lives, and they can manage the dangers in their environment.

So where does that leave a child like Brandon? Or those who luckily did not die, but experienced the terror of difficulty breathing, vomiting, or swelling of the lips or throat? 

Admittedly, the numbers of deaths due to allergic reaction are low.  There are only 7.5 deaths per million due to all food allergies combined each year, much fewer than the 36 per million due to shootings.

Currently, New York State and City guidelines plan only for implementing life-saving medical attention, rather than taking preventative measures.  But that is like playing Russian roulette.

We can work together to prevent tragedies and scary trips to the emergency room.  We can be vigilant, yet not isolate children with allergies. We can reduce anxiety for parents and children.

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I believe we can achieve this with these measures:

1) New York State and New York City should be required to label all foods, identifying any of the eight major food allergens: milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans.  A prominent sign listing food allergens should be posted at the beginning of the cafeteria line.  Currently, most foods served in schools are not labeled. Therefore, cafeteria workers, teachers and the children themselves do not know whether a food contains an allergen. 

2) The labels and signs should include pictures as well as words, for pre-readers and struggling readers.

3) Food allergens should be identified on the monthly lunch menu so that food servers, parents, students, teachers and the community will know, in advance, what will be served each day and any related food allergens.

Of course, nothing can ever be taken for granted. My son will always carry his EpiPen everywhere he goes—the cafeteria, classroom, on school trips, to afterschool activities.  Children must understand the importance of telling an adult immediately if they don’t feel well. However, with the above measures, we know we are doing the best we can for children to feel safe and “normal.”

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