I was working in my son’s classroom last week preparing the snack station when little Jane came skipping in. Jane, I know, from doing the snack station at our co-op preschool, has severe allergies. But to what, I couldn’t remember.
I tried to slyly ask her dad as they approached if she could eat the Honey Maid brand of graham crackers, when 2-year-old Jane in her sweet, preschool voice declared, “I have an EpiPen!”
“What?” I said, kneeling down and trying to decipher what she had said to me in that adorable little intonation.
“I have an EpiPen,” she said, a bit more enunciated with a huge smile.
Her dad gave me the nod that the Honey Maids were OK, and I darted directly to the school’s Wall of Knowledge—the place where each child’s photo and allergen history are listed on a bulletin board—to become more familiar with what child can eat what.
What a huge responsibility!
My son’s preschool is a “nut-free” environment, which means nothing containing nuts will be served nor can be brought in a child’s lunch box. That rules out granola bars, trail mix, almonds and peanut butter in any capacity. It has even become a trend to pack Sunflower Butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. But there are still some food allergies unique to certain children that we have to work around, like those allergic to eggs, dairy or certain types of fruits and vegetables.
The school really looks out for those children who will become sick, or even worse, become anaphylactic, by moderating what foods can exist on campus.
On the other end of the spectrum, my kindergarten son attends an elementary school where the children with allergies are expected to be aware of the types of foods that they are allergic to and abide by the rules set forth by their doctors and parents. For birthday snacks, an e-mail goes around to the class making those parents of allergy-prone children aware of what ingredients are going into the birthday treat. Most parents of children with allergies attach a note for the teacher to make her aware that their child may not eat the birthday treat, but will bring a treat of their own from home.
Allergies are on the rise, there’s no dispute there. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, food allergies affect about 6 percent of children under the age of 3. In a 10-year span, from 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergy among children under 18 rose nearly 20 percent. As for peanut allergies, one of the more common, it affects 1.2 percent of all children, about 20 percent of whom outgrow it by age 6. According to the AAAAI, peanut allergies doubled in children from 1997 to 2002.
Schools deal with the allergy issue in many ways. But for parents of children with allergies, it can be a heavy weight to bear, sending your curious first-grader into the world of temptation.
Florence Ku, a Sunnyvale mother of two, says it’s been an enduring struggle to ensure safety at school for her two boys, 11 and 15, who both suffer from peanut and tree allergies. Her eldest son also has an apple allergy.
“We have had to be very careful to read labels and have to order every meal specially," said Ku. "We have had to teach our children to read all labels. We always said, 'Don’t eat it until you read it.' And we’ve told them that if they aren’t sure, then bring it home and we will see together if you can have it.”
Ku found out about her eldest son’s allergy when he was 1, and although only given a small dab of peanut butter, her son had an immediate violent reaction, his body plastered with hives so badly it looked like a burn. He then began vomiting incessantly. Ku says she is not sure how ferocious the reaction would have been if untreated, which is why the thought of lunchtime at school continues to rattle her nerves.
“It is a life-threatening issue; it’s scary,” said Ku. “I have always talked with the teacher and made sure my kids know that they are not to eat any one else’s food and not to allow anyone to touch their food, but I am always worried.”
Some schools are firm “nut-free” establishments, but Ku says most schools and classes adopt their own policies, many of which include no special accommodations for those with life-threatening allergies. This inconsistency has left her boys at times feeling left out or “different.”
Having been through close to 20 separate classes between her two sons, Ku says a nice compromise for those suffering from allergies would be to:
- Have teachers certified in how to deal with students with life-threatening allergies
- Implement new policies of table wiping, no-sharing rules during lunchtime and possibly consider “nut-free” environments
- Educate the children in the class about allergies so they are aware of what makes that child a bit different.
- Have the parents of allergies notified of birthday treats or year-round parties so the child with allergies can enjoy the party, too, either with a treat brought from home or party offerings that don’t agitate the child.
Ku says her fears of lunchtime allergy attacks are diminishing as her boys get older, but she continues to wonder how those parents without children with allergies feel.
“I have just always wondered what parents with children without allergies think about it. Does it really bother them that much to not have their child bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their lunch?"