Monday, March 19, 2012

Food Allergies at School? "Safe" Easter Party Strategies

Spring has sprung and Easter will be here soon, bringing with it more opportunities for parties at some schools.

Based on my own experiences and my own observations at numerous school parties over the years, I have some suggestions about how to make parties safe for everyone, fun for everyone and definitely less stressful for parents, teachers and kids.

1. Speak to your child's teacher now. If your class has a party and wants to include lots of candy, now is the time to discuss it. Don't wait--if you act now you may have a chance to have a positive influence that will make the party more food allergy-friendly.

2. Keep the sweets list simple. If your school absolutely will not be swayed away from serving candy, then ask the teacher if you can supply a very short list of candies that are appropriate for nut allergies (or whatever allergy you are dealing with. This works best if there are not multiple, differing allergies in the classroom). For example, Gimbal's brand jelly beans are free of the top 8 food allergens and available at Walmart. Sweet Tarts candy eggs are safe for nut allergies (but check for other allergens). Other items for my short list include Yummy Earth lollipops (free of top 8 food allergens) and Surf Sweets gummy candies (check their web site for coupons). Smarties candies are always a standby, too--they are free of the Top 8 food allergens. I try to avoid chocolate treats simply because the nut allergy risk is always high for chocolate; calls to companies are usually required, so it's a good idea to keep the chocolate to a minimum for the school parties. (Plus, the kids with dairy allergies have problems with most chocolate, too).

The idea is to limit the choices or it gets too confusing and leaves too much room for error. DO give other parents some direction, though, so that they know what they can bring in, and not just what they can't. Your child's allergies, along with any other allergic classmates, will determine what is appropriate and safe.

3. Emphasize non-edible activities. There is too much food at school and frankly, most teachers are probably not enjoying the sugar buzz that the candy creates in the classroom. What about some fun, creative crafts? Younger kids love to make things! For example, this adorable bunny basket that I found on the web site for Family Fun magazine would make a great class craft for up to 4th grade. (Above that grade, the crafts aren't so appealing to kids, from what I've seen, anyway). Most parenting magazines will have fun kid crafts to do for spring, so ask your child's teacher if you can limit the food to one or two items (or nothing at all during class time) in favor of games and crafts. If you can, it's really helpful to offer your time preparing the crafts or supplying some of the materials.

4. Pool your resources and designate shoppers. Is there a great chance that someone is going to bring in something unsafe if multiple parents are shopping for the party? In my experience, yes, and that creates two problems. One: you now have unusable candy to deal with and screen and two, you are probably going to risk making some parents angry who took the time to buy food that isn't being used. That does not help food allergy parent PR! Instead of sending food, see if you can ask parents to send in a few dollars and then figure out who will shop for the party. Less is more.

5. Try not to segregate the allergic kids. Some schools deal with food allergies by allowing unsafe candy in the classroom and then limiting kids with allergies to designated areas. While I appreciate that they don't want the kids with allergies to come into contact with allergens, hence the segregation, this sends a terrible message to not only the allergic child, but the entire class. Basically, you are telling kids that a specific type of food (that may be eaten at home or any other time) is more important to include than their classmate. If your school tries to do this, please supply them with some of the suggestions I include above such as a short list of candy and non-edible crafts. Having kids with food allergies in the classroom can be a time to teach tolerance to the other kids. But segregating kids says otherwise. Think about it.

What has always worked best for me is lots of communication and being willing to step up and provide food, resources or supplies and/or showing up in the classroom if the teacher needs extra help. Things won't always go the way that we want them to, but by asking for change and advocating for less food-centric parties, you are making things safer for future parties.

What challenges are you facing as school party season heats up once again? What is your approach to parties?


BellaBride said...

Maybe this sounds harsh but I think people with allergies need to learn that everything does not revolve around what they can or cannot eat. As long as there is something for them to eat and everyone uses appropriate safety precautions-hand washing, table wiping, mouth rinsing-what is the issue?

Jenny said...

Hi there. Well, first of all, you assume a lot in your comment: that people with food allergies think the world revolves around them and that every school is using appropriate safety precautions. Both of those statements are wrong, so let me clarify since you asked a question (though it's probably rhetorical).

First: no child or parent with an allergy believes the "world revolves around them." I will give you an example. Since age 4 my daughter has not been able to have birthday cake at any party other than her own. She doesn't get to go to ice cream shops. She constantly has to carry medication with her in case she has an allergic reaction while out and about. She knows that every time she eats in a restaurant there is a chance somebody didn't use "appropriate safety precautions" and she could wind up in the hospital. The world is not geared to those with food allergies and anyone who deals with them knows that very well. That's one reason I write this blog--to help parents figure out how to navigate a world where people value food more than children's health.

But when you are a student at school, under the law you have a right to a safe environment. It's under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. School is a very specific place with the ultimate goal being an education for the students. It is a very important part of a child's life and every child in school deserves to feel safe there.

How we arrive at that "safe" environment differs, but in many cases it is by asking other parents not to send in a certain food. So easy. This is a big way to reduce risk of reactions. And it costs nothing! So "what is the issue?" if I can bounce that back to you.

Here's the issue: The kids usually don't mind--but parents, like yourself (if you are a parent) raise a fuss because they don't want the "world to revolve" around any child other than their own. That's one scenario. Or maybe they feel inconvenienced. I get it--if you feel that way, ask the teacher for recommendations or the parents of the allergic kids. I'm always happy to help out with food myself and most parents of kids with food allergies are happy to help, too.

Now the safety measures: Mouth rinsing. Anyone who understands food allergies would never advocate for mouth rinsing--food allergen can live in the saliva for up to 4 hours. Mouth rinsing does nothing and I personally have never heard of a parent who advocates for it. You may be thinking of that Florida mess where parents picketed a little girl with food allergies--that was a lovely story and the picketing parents really have a lot to be proud of--tormenting a 6-year-old and her parents. Right on! Moving on-- In that case it was THE SCHOOL and not the parents who advocated extreme measures in the classroom because the school was clearly uneducated on the realities of food allergies--a very common scenario, based on my own experiences and those of the people who post on my Facebook page.

Regarding table wiping and hand washing--if it happens, it can help reduce risk -- but if the allergen is all over the classroom, that can be dangerous to students. Dangerous as in, anaphylaxis and an emergency health situation. The bottom line is that there is no substitute for not having the allergen present in the first place, especially among younger children who are more apt to accidentally ingest it. This can happen either directly or through contact with the allergen on a surface.

One more word about table wiping--the people who are cleaning the classrooms but be educated in food allergies, too. Because the tables and such have to be cleaned in a certain way -- there's another "what if" variable. Does everyone know how to do this properly? For most schools the answer is no.

There are many issues confronting the health and safety of those with food allergies. or are two good education and advocacy groups to visit for more details.

Jenny said...

Thank you Cindy Morrison for the following post. I'm sorry--I tried to publish your comment via my phone and it didn't work! So here it is and thank you!

"Excellent post and response, Jenny. You are such an extremely important advocate for our community. There are so many families that just don't truly understand the danger and the implications.
And, I truly believe in my heart that the parents that "fight" the food restrictions in classrooms are the same parents that would be leading allergy advocates in the classroom - if it were their own child in danger.
Aside from having a son with a severe peanut and tree nut allergy, I work at a Children's Hospital in pediatric healthcare and I am continually blown away at how non-compassionate parents can be when it's not about the safety or health of their own child.
All we can do is keep our children safe by educating them and others...and pray that more parents are open to the education.
And boy do I wish BellaBride's statement was true and the world did revolve around us (I am of course saying that in jest), but the reality of that comment is that if that were true...we could eat any where we wanted (even at Disneyland) without having to do endless research for an allergy plan before our trip, we would not need to look up the nearest ER to vacation spots (making sure to have enough epinephrine to get us there should there be an emergency) and food would just be much more fun...instead of a constant source of research and worry.
If BellaBride is a parent with a child without a severe allergy. I'd like to say how very lucky you are and would also like to thank you very much for posting that comment, because it gave Jenny an opportunity to share very important information - information that I hope you will share with other people/moms in your life."
Cindy Morrison

Traci said...

Such a great response Jenny! My 8 year old was diagnosed last fall with peanut/tree nut and sesame allergies.

I am so frustrated by the apparent lack of concern that some parents have when it comes to school parties. Case in point: for my daughter's "holiday" party before Christmas, a note was sent home to all parents notifying them that there was a peanut allergy in the classroom and to please plan accordingly when sending in food for the party.

I kid you not - more than 1/2 of the food items sent in contained peanuts and/or peanut butter. There were peanut butter cookies, buckeye candy (chocolate and peanut butter), and an apple pie with a peanut butter crumb topping. The mom who made that pie actually said to me "well, I knew there was a peanut allergy in the room but I did the pie late last night and I just figured "oh well, that kid won't be able to eat my pie."

I looked at her and said "Yes, well that 'kid' is MY daughter and she's VERY allergic to peanuts so I can't share your 'who cares' attitude about it." I was so furious. To me that's just being irresponsible and not taking a child's safety into consideration.
And it's just downright LAZY especially considering that all parents were notified of the food allergy issue.

For the valentine's day party the "room mom" asked me to bake something "nut free" so that my daughter could enjoy the party and not feel "singled out." That made a huge difference to me.

I think people need to realize that having a child with food allergies makes everything more challenging and the most important thing for us, as parents, is to keep our child safe and away from dangerous foods. To think otherwise is foolish.

It would be nice if parents of non-food allergy kids would actually think before they act - we aren't asking for the world to revolve around our kids. We're asking for it to be safer. And more responsible.

Patty said...

Thanks for this great post. I applaud your response to BellaBride's comment, but also wanted to call attention to your point about how segregation of children with food allergies teaches intolerance! That is so true. I've not been able to put my finger on why the whole "separate table" or "labeled table" strategy bugs me so much, but you've hit the nail on the head. If we want our children to be safe in schools (and really, that's *supposed* to be a safe place for all children)then all places in a school need to be safe. And allowing non-allergic children to eat foods that are potentially life-threatening in close proximity to allergic children is NOT safe, no matter how clearly you mark a table or how far away that table is pushed into a corner. I've seen some pretty pathetic examples of "peanut free zones" in school lunchrooms and it's sickening. Schools can do better, they should do better than to simply segregate children with allergies. It shows such a lack of compassion to simply "put the allergic kids at their own table" --that reinforces a social stigma that as you say so well, isn't good for ANY children.

BellaBride said...

Easter is a Christian holiday and should not be celebrated in a public school. Not all students are Christian, or does your sensitivity and inclusion only apply to those with allergies?

Jenny said...

Hi there Traci--Have you considered asking the teacher about this? While every risk can't be eliminated, that much peanut product in the classroom with a severe peanut allergy is really not a safe situation. Why so much homemade food? Our school usually requires prepared food with a label. We also have nut-free classrooms, though the cafeteria is not and no foods are restricted there. If you can keep the peanut in the lunchroom it greatly reduces the risk. It might be time to start a dialogue with the school about how to keep the risk reduced by limiting the amount of peanut in the classroom. I mean, seriously--that stuff shouldn't have been served if the teacher gave everybody fair warning. Good luck and thanks for sharing your comment!

Jenny said...

Hi again, BB, My kids attend public school so of course no religious holiday parties and rightly so. But, since this is a food allergy blog, I have been asked about these parties by parents who, I assume, send their children to religious schools where Easter parties might be an issue. Thanks for your concern.