Nut-free or not nut-free...table. That is the question facing
many school-aged kids with allergies.
If your school-aged child is severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, or both, you've probably been offered (or maybe you've asked for) a nut-free or peanut-free lunch table. Our current school district recently went one step further to offer an "allergy-free table" that addresses multiple food allergies. Since these tables are frequently part of a child's 504 plan or Individual Health Plan, they are likely to continue cropping up at an increasing number of schools.
In general, though, it's usually a peanut or nut-free table being talked about at school. If your school is offering you this option, that is a sign that they are taking allergies seriously which is a very good thing. Unfortunately, the peanut-free table has gotten a bit of a stigma. Some of the common objections: nobody wants to sit there, it's punishment for having allergies, kids are isolated and alone, it's not the "real world" way of doing things, etc.
Please believe: I do understand why some of us might have that perspective, but as a parent whose child has used and benefited from a nut-free table, I want to reassure parents that it doesn't have to be that way. Especially in the younger grades, when kids are not as able to manage their own allergies, a nut-free table can provide a safe place to eat during the school day. For the "real world" objectors, I also am a strong proponent of helping kids live in the real world. But the fact is, in the real world, they can get up and move if allergens are presenting a problem for them. Not so in most schools with strict seating and behavior policies.
In particular, I want us to remember why these tables are being offered in the first place: to provide allergic kids with a clean, allergen-free place to enjoy their midday meal that reduces the risk of exposing them to a potentially dangerous allergic reaction.
From a social point of view, the table should be open to non-allergic kids who have brought an allergy-friendly lunch. Encourage your child to ask his or her friends to join them. Seriously, most kids are so used to the "free-from table" concept that they happily accompany their buddies to this table. If you are not finding this to be true for you, ask your child's teacher for some help in bringing kids to the table to join your child.
One day I asked my youngest (no food allergies) where she sat at lunch that day and she said "I tried to sit with my friend at the nut-free table, but it was full." This turned out to be a common occurrence--so many kids wanted to sit with the friends who had nut allergies, that they ended up having to take turns. I know that this doesn't always happen, but most kids will not want to sit apart from their good friends and will want to join them at lunch, no matter what table it is.
An alternative to an entire nut-free table that we were provided with at our previous elementary school was an "allergy-free zone." This was an assigned seat for the kids with allergies, usually at or near the end of a table. Only kids with cafeteria lunches (nut-free) or those without nut products sat in or near this zone. Because they had ample lunchroom supervision, this worked really well for my daughter. She still got to sit with her class and friends, but she was not plopped in the middle of a group of kids eating PB & J, something she felt uncomfortable about due to the severity of her allergy.
Today, I asked a local expert -- my daughter -- what she thought about nut-free tables in elementary school and if there was anything she thought parents needed to know about them. (Since she's sat at a nut-free table or in a "nut-free zone" of the cafeteria her entire school career up until now, I hope you will agree she's probably an expert on this topic.) She brought up some good points. She told me that as long as she could bring a couple of friends to the nut-free table, she definitely preferred sitting there at lunch for peace of mind. She told me she can't really enjoy her food if she's worried about cross-contact, which can result in an accidental ingestion.
However, there have been some struggles and she emphasized to me that everyone needed to know about the table and the rules for the table. That includes all the lunchtime supervisors and the kids, too, so that everyone understood that a few friends could sit at the allergy-free table provided they had a "safe" lunch and that the table would be reserved "allergy-table" use only. (A sign on the table itself proved helpful in this case.)
No one should be forced to sit at a specific table and every parent and child will have to make the decision about what seating option works the best for them and their situation. Work with your school to find the best solution. Based on our family's experience with the "nut-free" table, I've found that like most things in life, this table is what you make of it. If you view it as a safe place for a child to eat lunch and a way to reduce allergy risk so that they can get on with their school day, there is a good chance your child just might view it positively as well.