Last week we gathered our paperwork and headed to Thomas’ new school to officially enroll him for kindergarten. In between filling out our address at least a dozen times and asking basic questions such as if there was a kindergarten orientation (“Yes! The day before school starts.”) an old issue reared its ugly Medusa-like head: Food allergies.
We’ve relaxed considerably about food allergies in our home over the past two years. Thomas is now old enough to understand his allergies and is quite reasonable about the restrictions that they impose. Even better, Thomas is no longer allergic to eggs, garlic, and pepper – three ubiquitous foods that we all sorely missed having in the house. But the fact the remains that Thomas is still allergic to soy, peanuts, and sesame. And because having children with the same food allergies would make life just too easy, Theo is allergic to onions and cashews.
Thomas’ allergy to sesame is anaphylactic and thus, requires an epi-pen. During the enrollment process I casually asked, “I am sure you see this all the time, but how do you deal with food allergies?” Given that the prevalence of childhood food allergies in our society is rampant, the answer I got was shocking to me in its ignorance. The office staff cheerily explained to me that we could meet with the school nurse to go over the specific food allergies and an action plan and that school staff were trained in using an epi-pen. Sensible and reassuring. The office staff then went on to tell me that at the beginning of the year each classroom teacher would send a letter home to each student listing the food allergies in the classroom to inform the other parents of what foods were not safe for classroom treats or lunches. I started to get nervous. I immediately wondered, how could other parents – most with no experience of food allergies, half of whom do not reside in homes where English is the primary language, be expected to read labels the way that we do? How many parents know that hummus, a favorite lunch item, is chock full of sesame seeds? How many parents know that soy resides in nearly every processed food item in this country? Even our own parents and close friends, who are well aware of the risks, have made mistakes from time to time. It unfair and unrealistic to expect other parents to carry our burden. And with multiple food allergic children in the same class does the collective diet of the class become so restrictive that parents are left sending their children to school with lunches of rice and potatoes? The very notion was ridiculous and dangerous. I told the office staff as much and they then offered that if I was really concerned, there was a special table in the cafeteria for food allergic kids. It was then that I began to get upset. A “special” table simply because my son, though no fault of his own, cannot eat some common foods. He doesn’t need to sit at a special table full of kids with food allergies. Every day, at his current school, he eats next to children who bring items in their lunches that he is allergic to and in over two years at school he has never had an incident. Why? Because his school has a strict no-sharing policy. Students eat only what their parents provide them. Period. Snacks and treats are baked on site at the school and the school is responsible for every ingredient in the provided food.
The solution for elementary schools is similarly simple. If outside snacks or treats are allowed parents should be able to state that they do not want their child receiving food that they [the parents] did not provide and should be allowed to provide an alternative. Most importantly, while I am sure it would be met with protests of “not enough money in the budget to pay for adequate lunchtime supervision” the school should implement a strict no-sharing policy for all students. Food allergies or not, I actually think that most parents want to know what their kids are eating at school and would be happy to know that their children are eating what they [the parents] provided or paid for (in the case of hot lunch). While implementation may indeed require extra supervision at first, such a policy would quickly become routine if implemented from kindergarten on and if penalties for infraction (maybe the offending students could go sit by themselves at a “special” table) were adequately persuasive.
Clearly it is my job as a parent of a food allergic child to prepare him for the real world. Thomas already knows not to eat food at a party or play date without checking the ingredients first. He is as scared of his reaction to the forbidden foods as I am. It does not do him any good to pretend to eliminate the his forbidden foods in the world around him – he needs to learn how to manage his allergies. But his school must help him in his quest. I worry that Thomas, taught not to share food by me, will be tempted by another student’s offer to share a cookie at lunchtime, or will one day encounter a birthday treat brought in by a parent at school, or will be offered a cracker used by a teacher as a reward. He might protest the food, but the adult will reassure him, “We know about your allergies – this is safe.” But that adult will be mistaken. They won’t have thought to check for soy in a cookie. They won’t have thought to look for sesame seeds as an ingredient on that box of crackers. And Thomas, not even five years old when he eterns kindergarten, will experience an understandable lack in judgement and eat the proffered food. Such mistakes are, of course, what the epi-pen is for, but every effort must be made by the school to ensure that that scenario never happens.
Life-threatening food allergies are a particularly frustrating problem for parents to deal with. Food allergies are misunderstood, downplayed, written off as hysterical parenting. But I have seen my childrens’ skin explode, in a matter of seconds, into red angry hives. I have seen my son struggle for air mere minutes after a skin exposure to one of his allergens. I have held my child in my arms as he projectile vomited over and over again utnil his stomach was empty of the offending food. Food allergies are a serious medical problem and deserve the same intelligent response as any other medical condition a child might have. I think my sons are the most special boys in the world, but they should never have to be excluded from other kids, forced to sit at a “special” table, just to keep them safe.