Friday, January 28, 2011

Food Allergies and School Parties

Before I share some tips for dealing with school parties, such as any Valentine's Day celebrations that may be on the horizon for you, I want to share a link to an article about Illinois and how they handle food allergies at school, with regard to new legislation. I was interviewed for this article (you see my comments near the end of the piece) and I sincerely hope that schools are listening and paying attention to all sides of the "treats at school" debate.

Unfortunately, we just got more evidence of why schools really need to watch the extraneous food and snacks. I just read on Allergic Living's Facebook page, that yet again, another child was put into danger at school due to "sweet treats." Apparently, an unaware substitute teacher handed the child a chocolate with a hazelnut and the 7-year-old boy went into cardiac arrest after he ate. His life was most likely saved by nearly immediate epinephrine usage by his mother, as this happened to him at the end of the school day. The child was wearing his autoinjector and she was able to give it to him immediately. However, he still suffered two heart attacks. Is this enough to stop the constant candy-giving???? Another point: the candy had hazelnut, not peanut. People don't realize how serious tree nut allergies are and tend to focus on peanut. If your child has both or just tree nut, be sure that everyone understands the difference. I find it helps to name the tree nuts for people such as pistachio, hazelnut, walnut, almond, etc.

I would suggest forwarding both of these articles to your school, especially if you have had difficulties bringing home the seriousness of food allergies. Enough is enough. Most 7-year-olds will take candy if offered to them--so don't offer it to them!!! This is so simple to do. Something as simple as eliminating candy as a reward can save lives.

According to the article about the child who had the reaction, the candy in question was to celebrate another student's birthday. What happened to singing "Happy Birthday?" Our school gives each "birthday child" a free book of their choice from the school office and their birthday is announced during the beginning of the school day over the PA system. What about that? Or a sticker? Or nothing at all? Don't most kids get b-day treats at home anymore???

If I sound disgusted, I am. It's not that I'm against candy, birthdays or celebrations. I'm for all of them, but not as a focus at school. Why? It's just crazy to me that despite all the guidelines, laws and meetings, all the caution and care that most of a school staff will devote to food allergies can go out the window because one person is unaware. That's why I say no more food at school that isn't pre-approved. NO allergic child should be offered sweets, treats or outside food that wasn't provided from their own homes. Period. That would pretty much solve it.

I don't want to scare any of you off of school parties. Usually, if parents are involved and informed and teachers are kept up to speed, everything will go OK. However, incidents do happen and I think a proactive approach is called for at all times.

Here's what to do if your child's classroom is having a Valentine's Day party:

1. Give the teacher a heads-up now. Don't wait until the week of, or even a few days before. Speak to the teacher, send an e-mail, pick up the phone, your choice, but make it a point to find out what is going on with regard to food. Does food have to be offered? If it is, offer to send in a safe treat and then emphasize that your child sticks to that and that only.

2. Check the crafts. Are any edible crafts being done or is food being used for inedible crafts? Ask now. These are a bad idea unless everyone is on the same page about what is safe and what isn't. I've found that is usually not the case, so suggest an alternative craft if you must. The store Michael's has tons of craft ideas; so does Target.

3. Be careful of candy in the actual Valentine. People love to attach candy to valentines. It's cute, no doubt, but can be hazardous to a kid with food allergies. Instruct your child not to eat candy on their Valentine and alert the teacher (depending on your child's age and maturity) to be on the lookout for this.

4. Send home a note a week before the party. Ask your child's teacher to send home a reminder note of what to avoid sending. If you have a dairy-free, nut-free classroom, for example, be sure to include some suggestions of safe brands and treats. If people are intent on bringing food, at least they will have some idea of what is OK for the kids with allergies.

5. Role play with your child. This may be the most important point. It's never too early to teach a child to refuse food they are not sure of. Our rule has always been: "When in doubt, do without." Teach your child to be polite but firm when offered food that may not be safe. This would pretty much include all candy and baked goods you have not sent to school, but pretzels, chips and popcorn brands can also be unsafe. Our daughter has always refused food since she we knew of her allergy and your child can learn to do the same. They will need this skill their entire life; why not start now?

If there's anything you think I've missed, please share it with us. We can make our school parties safe but you must speak up.


Mom to 4C boys said...

My son is in preschool and we had nothing but problems with them understanding the severity of the situation.

I was very specific at the beginning of the year that he wasn't to have anything that I didn't either bring in or approve before hand.

One day I pick him up and he says that they had ice cream for a treat. I flipped. He had questioned the teacher and when she said she it was fine he believed her. The next day I talked to the teacher and her response was "well it didn't say anything on the label".

Right before Christmas she asked me if he could have chestnuts. I was dumbfounded.

We ended up pulling him out because of our concerns about his safety. We had the option in preschool, but I am worried about when he starts Kindergarten next year.

How do you get teachers to understand that when he says no he means no?

shanna said...

i have a 6 year old daughter with a peanut allergy. I call her the "peanut nazi" for which i am thankful. she is very aware of what she eats and always brings home anything new that she is uncertain about. she never eats anything given to her unless i approve it. I have told her that there are other people she can trust besides me but i am very thankful that she is so cautious.

Jenny said...

There is never an easy answer for this one, because you never know who you will be dealing with and what their understanding of food allergies are. For example, I enrolled my daughter park district in a class where the girls made lotions and such and I explained that she had a nut allergy. They then gave my daughter "almond oil" as an ingredient. Last time I checked, almonds, and as you point out--chestnuts--are nuts! It's very frustrating, but just keep speaking up and spelling it out for them. You can also emphasize that labels are not always inclusive and that certain high-risk foods such as ice cream or baked goods should never be offered to your child without your approval.

If you keep meeting with resistance from any teacher, go to their boss, the principal. If you have trouble with them, go to their boss, the superintendent of schools. This tends to get their attention.

In elementary school, I've been very lucky. Our teachers have always been on board and helpful. However, communication always needs to happen all year long because teachers carry a large student load and have so many issues to take care of. I issue reminders and check in from time to time.

You also must teach your son to firmly refuse anything that he is not sure about. Shanna, this speaks to your point. If kids refuse to eat questionable foods, they keep themselves a lot safer. Work on role-playing with your son and along with teacher participation, this should help as well.

I'm glad you removed your son from an unsafe situation. I'm sure it was hard, but it is worth it to protect our kids!

Melinda said...

My son with food allergies is 2, so I don't have experience dealing with schools yet. My oldest son is in preschool this year, and a friend of his (I'm also friends with the mom) has a peanut allergy, and it has been alarming to know how often outside food, such as donuts, have been brought into the classroom. The food may not have actual nuts in it, but the cross contamination risk is scary also. Because of that, I won't be putting my youngest into preschool anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately people don't understand how serious food allergies are. My daughter is 4 and is allergic to eggs & peanuts. She's already had 2 anaphylaxsis reactions to eggs. It's so scary, most people just don't get it. Her preschool teachers are very careful and I finally feel comfortable with her being there, but most days she can't eat the snack that's brought by other parents because it either has eggs or nuts. I agree with the post--why does everything for kids have to revolve around food? It's a constant battle. Recommended snacks for preschool are things like fruit, string cheese, gold fish crackers--but most days my daughter tells me kids bring in donuts, cookies, ice cream (how exactly is this a healthy snack for a 4 year old anyway??)
I think we need better education so that other parents understand how serious this is, and that we're not just over-reacting or exaggerating the problem.

ELTADA said...

I am so surprised to read the comments about the preschools! I would have thought that more preschools would be following the lead of schools/school boards and implementing peanut/nut free classrooms and allergy policies & procedures. So far, our family has been very lucky and encountered extremely supportive and diligent teachers at both preschool and JK.
Perhaps what has helped is that we go to a co-operative preschool where the parents run the school - thus we have a VERY strict allergy policy and the only food that is brought in is brought by the snack parent and all labels are double checked by a teacher. All food has to be prepared on site as well.
For those struggling, perhaps looking into local co-operative preschools might lead you to more supportive environments.

Poker Chick said...

ccmommy - very sorry to hear your concerns but kudos to you for following your instincts. We had a similar situation ended up not sending our child to public school because of our concerns and now pay a fortune for private, but it's worth it for piece of mind.
That said, we have had a great experience with our current school and also did with our preschool. The key difference was supportive and committed staff that is educated,and prepared for the worst in case of emergency.

Regarding school parties in the past we have offered to bake/bring in foods. It's a pain but it guarantees us at least something safe for our child to eat and usually other parents/teachers appreciate it because it's less work they have to do!

Anonymous said...

I have two nut-allergic children, and I am feeling particularly disillusioned today. My eldest son just started kindergarten this year. Since beginning, my husband and I have met with the nurse, the teacher, and the principal and explained to all of them how serious his allergies are. Before being diagnosed, my son had two anaphylactic reactions. To the point though, today was his Halloween party at school. Prior to the party, I sent in a bag of candy for him and some candy for the class. I also sent a note stating that he was to be given no other treats other than the ones that I has provided. However, because I was still concerned, I went to the party and observed. While the teacher and room mother were very accommodating and even went out of the way to offer him nut free activities, he was still given three other food items by other parents in the room, including a juicebox, which was okay, a kitkat, which we do not eat as it carries a warning about being manufactured in a facility with peanuts, and a homemade cookie. He asked the parent if the cookie had nuts, which it not obviously have, but being that her child is not nut allergic and there has never been a warning sent to other parents, I highly doubt that the ingredients that went into the cookie were checked. To boot, when I told the other mother who was handing him the KitKat that he could not eat it, she indignantly stated that she had a nut allergic gild herself and that the KitKat did not have nuts. When we still refused, she just walked away. Take home point, Never let your nut allergic child attend a party at school if you do not personally know and trust every adult in the room!!!!!