In the United States, one out of every 25 Americans suffers from a food allergy, and one in 20 has gluten intolerance. And out of those 15 million affected with food allergies, a vast majority are children, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy group.
The special dietary attention these young people require is not always welcomed by the afflicted, as they often feel stigmatized for being “different” from their peers. However, providing a safe environment for children who must follow a medically necessary diet can be a matter of life and death for those who have a severe food allergy.
It is imperative that parents, school officials, teachers, and fellow students be marshaled to provide a safe and welcoming venue for these children. A unified front will insure that these kids become active and valued participants in the school community. In order to achieve this goal, knowledge is power and education is the key.
Daily challenges vary in type and intensity for kids with food allergies, sensitivity or intolerance. While constantly struggling with making safe food choices, some are bullied and ostracized because of their legitimate dietary constraints. Several studies support the growing sense that these children experience significant social challenges.
The data demonstrates that even parents are often met with hostility and skepticism in school and other social situations when trying to explain their child’s specific dietary circumstances. Additionally, some of these families are made to feel that the food allergy or intolerance is a frivolous, self-indulgent fad invented and maintained by attention-seeking people. Unfortunately, there are occasions when non-food allergy parents picket schools that are taking proper allergy-safe precautions, believing that their children’s eating “rights” are being subordinated in favor of the allergy sufferers.
Since our society uses food as a focal point in most celebrations, meetings, and social situations, awareness of allergy, food sensitivity, and intolerance is essential in creating settings that are truly all-inclusive.
“Generally speaking, the public awareness of food allergy in the U.S. has increased, and this has resulted in some real benefits to families,” says Brian P. Vickery, MD, an assistant professor at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. “For example, manufacturers are now required to put clearer labels on food items, many restaurants can provide better experiences, and schools are often more prepared to handle children with allergies. However, the situation is far from perfect. Many families continue to struggle over and over again with obstacles, limitations, skepticism, and judgment.”
One effective and easy way for a family to overcome these struggles and boost the child’s confidence, so she can feel that she fits in, is to follow the five steps of The Golden Apple Rule. Like that other golden rule, the Golden Apple Rule lets parents and caregivers lead by example. These steps, which can immediately be incorporated in the child’s daily life, include:
• Advocate: Tell your child that it is important to speak up and inform friends, teachers, and teammates that she has a food allergy or intolerance that could potentially be fatal or make her very sick. Being an advocate for your child will teach her to effectively advocate for herself — an important life lesson she will take into adulthood.
• Positive attitude: Stay upbeat and confront your child’s dietary limitations head on. As you remain positive and in control, the child’s anxiety decreases as these limitations become a normal part of everyday life. This does not mean complacency, but rather vigilance with a smile.
• Provide a favorite snack: Give your child a favorite snack to be eaten at school or on the field. Then, several times a year, share this treat with your child’s fellow students and teammates to demonstrate that she eats delicious food everyone can enjoy. Sharing this preferred snack with classmates and friends can help your child feel better about her dietary needs. Also, give your child safe snacks to keep at school for those times when unexpected parties arise, so she is not left out of the celebration.
• Look, listen, and locate: Keep your eyes and ears open for any new information that will assist you in educating and raising awareness about food allergies, sensitivities, or intolerance.
• Empower: Speak frankly with your child about her dietary restrictions. Teach her to read and understand food packaging labels and, most importantly, tell her it is OK to say, “No, thank you,” when she is offered a possibly unsafe food choice. This bolsters your child’s confidence to participate in school and social environments and helps her to gracefully handle awkward peer-related situations that may arise.
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Eating out, going to camp, and having fun in a myriad of places and settings is all possible for a child with a food allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance. But to engage in these activities SAFELY requires diligent planning, preparation, and education. In the end, though, it is all worth it when you see your child enjoying herself — just like everyone else!
Joan Schmidt is a registered nurse with a master’s degree in business administration who has more than 20 years of healthcare experience. She owns and operates JCB Consulting Services Inc. — a company that offers gluten-free consulting services to food service venues, as well as individual client care — with her sister, Barbara Callanan. Schmidt lives on Long Island with her husband and two children. Her daughter was recently diagnosed with a tree nut allergy and her sister has celiac disease. Schmidt’s passion is to educate and raise awareness about food allergies and celiac disease, ensuring safe consumption of food for all those affected. Contact her at [email protected] and visit her on Facebook or www.consultjcb.com.