Back to school with food allergies

Food-allergy parents all over the U.S. are engaging in our particular back-to-school rituals: gathering signatures on forms, packaging up emergency medications (one for the nurse, one for the classroom, one for the backpack…), and stocking up on lunchbox essentials.

First day of school (Photo by Susannah Fox)

But what about the teachers? How are they preparing? I’d never considered it until my niece wrote to me asking for advice on behalf of a friend who is starting her first teaching job. One of her students has life-threatening food allergies (a similar list to my own kid’s allergens) and she wants to prepare. My heart just about burst with gratitude toward her.

Here’s what I wrote back:

Your friend is so thoughtful to want to learn more about how to keep her student safe. Has she talked with the parents yet? I always meet with my son’s teachers and train them on the basics, including letting them practice giving a grapefruit the Epipen. I also use that meeting as a chance to ask for accommodations, like not using food as a reward or as a prop.

I think about food allergies along 3 dimensions:

  1. Safety — how can she and everyone who surrounds this child make sure he is safe? Prevention and preparation for emergencies are the keys here. Field trips and parties are my nightmare since most accidents happen when you break routine.
  2. Inclusion — how can she make sure he feels included in every activity? Clear communication with all parents and teachers, including substitutes, about snacks, parties, and crafts is key.
  3. Opportunity for learning — how might she use this as an opportunity for teaching about diversity, friendship, safety, and helpfulness?

As for snacks, I never allowed my son to eat the “classroom snack” unless I had personally read the label. We would pack him a snack and a lunch every day.

But if your friend needs to provide the snack every day, safe foods could include: raisins; Ritz crackers; mainstream brand pretzels (smaller manufacturers are more likely to share equipment with peanut products); mini plain bagels with cream cheese. For a treat, Oreos are a fabulous shelf-stable cookie to have in the classroom in case someone brings in surprise cupcakes.

Do a lot of label reading and, when in doubt, ask questions of the food-allergy family.

I was a room parent every year so I could plan all the parties. I even would ask all the parents for their child’s birthday at the start of every year and email them a week in advance to ask what they planned to bring, to be sure it would be safe for all the kids with food allergies or other issues (such as the kid who is vegan). You’re going to think I’m crazy, but there were many times that I baked vegan cupcakes for another kid’s birthday because a family didn’t want to deal with making something from scratch. I was 100% committed to creating an inclusive, safe classroom environment for my son and every other kid.

Your friend will soon find out: People are weird about food and their kids.

I now believe that there are 4 topics that should not be brought up in polite conversation: religion, politics, sex, and what you feed your child. I had people scream at me because I wouldn’t let them bring nuts into a party where nut-allergic kids would be. But guess what? All the kids felt safe and included that day.

For the most part, the other children are awesome. I cherish a photo of the Valentines that two girls gave to my son a few years ago. They had carefully cut out the ingredients of the candy they attached to their cards so he could check to be sure it was safe for him to eat.

In case it’s useful, here’s a blog post I wrote about how to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction:

Food Allergy 101: Hold the blah-blah-blah

And here’s one I wrote about the annual training I do for my son’s teachers:

20 minutes

This whole site is excellent:

Kids with Food Allergies

(End of email.)

Parents of kids with food allergies or special needs: What do you wish a teacher would do to prepare their classroom for your child? Are there teachers or administrators who have gone above and beyond when it comes to keeping your child safe and included?

Teachers: What are your questions? What’s on your wish list for parents and guardians, when it comes to communication about a child’s special needs? Are there parents and guardians who have done an especially good job preparing their child and his or her teachers for the new year?

Here’s my story about Jim Clay, the founding director of School for Friends, in Washington, DC:

School for Friends is a school that not only embraces diversity, but welcomes every aspect of a new family or challenging situation as an opportunity for everyone to learn, to deepen their understanding of their role in the community.

In my food-allergy (FA) support group, I’ve read many stories of schools which exclude FA kids — either by not admitting them, by outright telling parents that they cannot guarantee an FA child’s safety, or by refusing to accommodate a family’s requests for safety measures. Jim took the opposite tack. As soon as he found out that my son had FA, he called a meeting of all the teachers and we conducted in-depth training on not only the safety issues, but the social issues of FA. He then publicized the new policies to all parents, letting it be known that FA was something we as a school community would embrace.

Most parents followed the new rules without complaint. A handful did not. They complained. They asked why they couldn’t bring XYZ food. Jim was unswerving, as were the teachers. And I felt their embrace. I tasted what it would be like to live in a world where differences were celebrated. I now had a mental model for a school environment that was truly safe, that truly had my child’s — every child’s — best interests at heart. It strengthened my resolve when I later encountered school administrators and teachers who did not know how to create such an environment. I could tell them what it looked like, how we could achieve it, because I had seen it, not just in my minds-eye, but in practice, under Jim’s leadership.

Please share your stories and questions in the comments. I’d love to provide this new teacher with some inspiring stories!

Originally published at susannahfox.com on September 5, 2017.