Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When Food Allergies Go to School: Chicago Tribune Reports

With the recent peanut allergy-related death of a Chicago 7th grader and the also recent enaction of FAAMA, it seems that schools may finally take food allergies more seriously. Still, resistance to using or even keeping epinephrine autoinjectors in schools is prevalent.

See this article from today's Chicago Tribune, an excellent piece that covers the main points that parents are interested in with regard to keeping kids safe at school. I especially appreciated the expert opinions such as that from leading allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer, who pointed out that many reactions that occur at school are from undiagnosed kids. He rightly suggests that having epinephrine autoinjectors stocked at school can save lives.

I can speak to this situation, as my daughter was undiagnosed when she experienced a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction at preschool. Nothing was done for her there and I soon found myself in a nightmare that luckily had a happy ending. It was frankly a miracle my daughter didn't stop breathing--she had every other symptom of anaphylaxis and even lost consciousness during the episode. She was 4 years old at the time.

The current Tribune article doesn't cover preschools. That's an entirely different can of worms that I will address in a future post. However, it does uncover what many parents of food allergic kids have known all along: people are reluctant to use an epinephrine autoinjector even if they witness the symptoms of anaphylaxis. Plus, currently no one will use an autoinjector on your child unless you have the doctor's order. So please have your documentation and orders on file. It's so important.

However, as the Tribune article also reveals, even that's not enough. As parents we must continue to be proactive and involved with our schools. We must monitor situations that are dangerous to allergic kids--and that means any food from a restaurant or a home kitchen. There is never a valid, curriculum-related reason to serve this stuff and yet you'd think banning restaurant food and home-baked cupcakes from a classroom is akin to getting an F on a midterm. I never saw this much food brought to school when I was a student and I don't know why we're seeing it now.

Even with FAAMA, food allergy emergency plans and epinephrine easily accessible, schools won't be safe until people understand what food allergies mean, what cross-contact means and that "peanut-free" doesn't only mean "recipe that doesn't contain peanuts." An understanding of what triggers a reaction can frankly remove any need for medication usage--because reactions won't happen if they are prevented.

The article also sites sobering statistics for those of us sending peanut and tree nut-allergic children off to school each day. What allergies are the most deadly? Peanuts first and tree nuts second. And people wonder why we don't want our kids constantly exposed to food all day long.

If the tragic case of the Chicago 7th grader can have any positive impact, it is to show that half-measures and misunderstandings with regard to food allergies are not only unfortunate and ill-advised, they can be deadly.

Along with the passing of laws, which are just pieces of a larger puzzle, parents need to keep bringing home the fact that food in the classroom needs to be drastically reduced or eliminated unless absolutely necessary--i.e., actually meal times. Lives depend on it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post! I am a mom who had the experience of my daughter having anaphalaxis to tree nuts that were "hidden" in an ice cream at the age of 3 and she is 5 now. Out of fear of this very situation that happened in the Chicago school, my husband and I opted to homeschool our daughter. For us, we can't handle the stress of sending her and thinking about the situations she might be presented with during her day. Our comfort level is not up to that yet, and so far (although I never saw myself as someone who would homeschool) we have been doing well and she is thriving. We do have her enrolled in ballet, which is great because all the parents watch their children while they are in class so no real issues there, and she goes to Sunday schoool and childrens church every week and the church has been very supportive, she keeps her epi pen in the class and only eats what we provide. We are wondering how we will ever feel comfortable sending her to public school as we had a hard time right from the beginning when we considered enrolling her this past fall. The school seemed vaguely familiar with food allergies and my gut instinct said that it wasn't right for our family right now. I guess my question is, how do we overcome the fear that seems to overwhelm us at times as it relates to so many what ifs? I just cannot see a time coming where it will be easier, and it has been 2 years since the reaction that led to us to having the diagnosis of life threatening tree nut allergies. It is still so very stressful. Any tips or thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

When I dropped my son off at preschool this morning his teacher had a bag of M&Ms sitting by her chair. The kids were sitting in their circle. I seen them and reinforced to him he's not to touch them or eat them...she said nope. The teachers and office staff agreed to have the classroom nut free on the day he's there. Clearly the M&Ms shouldn't have been in the room. I called the office and asked if they could be removed and reminded them of the nut free Wednesdays. They said no problem. Their response every time I mention his allergies is "yeah we had an allergy kid last year"....what relevance is that is what I want to scream at them.

I just don't think they take it seriously. I mean it could kill him! So I don't know whether to send him back or not. As a mom with experience what would you do?A

Lindsay said...

I'm always astounded by the negative comments posted on newspaper or magazine articles about peanut allergies. I'm quite certain that school nurses administer medications every day to children with ADD, diabetes, epilepsy, and other health conditions, and teachers gladly make accommodations for these kids, as well. Why is "peanut allergy" such a dirty word?

Also, I completely agree with you about treats in the classroom! And, aside from allergies, we're also facing the highest rates of childhood obesity. The cupcakes need to go!

Jenny said...

Lindsay, I used to read the comments and then I stopped. Don't let it get to you--in general, the people who comment nastily on news articles feel disenfranchised to begin with and they have their own problems. They would comment negatively on any story.

Regarding the parent who asked me about school: I have to say that I do believe kids can be safe at school and that homeschooling, while right for some kids, isn't the only solution just because a child has a food allergy. That's my opinion because I feel that every child has the right to a public school experience if their family desires them to have it.

Overcoming the fear of food allergies and your kids: I've dealt with nut allergies for 7 years and I don't know that we ever fully overcome the fear. Fear is not always bad--it can make you more aware and more cautious. With regard to food allergies, a healthy amount of fear or apprehension has a positive function. However, if you do what you say you are doing in your comment, you can feel pretty confident you're doing things right and can let your child think about attending public school. It's a process, to be sure, but my daughter is extremely allergic and yet she has had a rewarding public school experience so far. I like to use the term "safe enough." No place in this nutty world is 100% safe--yet you can teach others how to make your child safe enough at school. I hope you will review some of my previous posts on school--look up key words like "school" "back to school" and "class parties." Since this is becoming a hot topic once again I will write a new post about this soon. Please also share your fears with your allergist--they can reassure you on many points.

In regards to the parent who asked about M&Ms and preschool--the same thing happened to me, almost exactly. You just have to keep reinforcing the rules with the preschool and I've also found that it helps to meet with teachers and administrators and share the medical information with them. You can forward them news articles and explain how cross contact works. I did a preschool post awhile ago. See if this helps. Again, I'll be covering preschool again soon as well.

It's so important that our allergic kids learn to function in this imperfect, food-filled world. It's scary to put them in a situation where you feel that food can be a problem, but if you keep open lines of communication and keep educating your child's caregivers and teachers, it will pay off. I know it's a big burden on us parents, but I'd rather take the heat than deal with a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that in Ohio we actually have a law that students may carry their Epi Pen. My daughter takes hers with her everywhere, and there is one for her in the nurse's office. Our school is on the cutting edge of protection for kids with food allergies. There is no food in the classrooms, she eats at a special table that is cleaned before and after she eats. Most of the school has been trained to use an Epi Pen, and we have a really good medical plan in place. It took some time, and tears to get all of this in place.

Anonymous said...

my daughter is in kindergarten. it has been a daily challenge, but she has been safe so far and has benefited from the experience. i am scared to death to think of next year-1st grade at a bigger school. i honestly don't know how it can work...anticipating every special, every instance...i am considering homeschooling as well.

Kim Lutz said...


I need to thank you again for your clear voice protecting all of our children with food allergies. As you so rightly point out, laws are only the beginning. Communication with the school, with the other parents and with our children is what will ultimately keep our kids safe. I appreciate so much all that you have been doing to keep clear, accurate information at the forefront of all allergy discussions.

Keep up the good work!
Kim Lutz