Keeping our Classrooms Safe

After hauling my groceries into the car, I’m ready for the hour-long drive back home, in time to pick my son up at school.

I double-check my phone.

Missed call. 802 area code. Shoot. Probably the school.

Why didn’t my phone ring?

It never does for some reason.

I check the message; it’s from the school nurse.

Big emergency:

Cake has been brought into the classroom.

Can Brett have any?

My heart starts pounding. And as I continue on my drive home, for the next half hour, my brain is spinning with possible scenarios that could happen as a result of the answer to this question.

What’s the problem, you may ask?

What’s wrong with cake? Kid eats treats at school all the time, right?

a little extra running around time vs. cake? most kids'll take it...

a little extra running around time vs. cake? most kids’ll take it…

No big deal.

But it is.

To the kid with a food allergy, when an unexpected ‘something’ is brought to school.

I continue driving. What to do. What to do.

And then finally stop at the first turn-around I see and call in to the school.

The nurse and I talk it over.

Will it be safe? Who baked it?

It’s probably ok. But what if it isn’t?

Is it worth it? Should he just opt out?

When he opts out, guess what?

Instead of learning at school, he’s upset in the nurses office.

He’s excluded, as always

Sometimes I wonder if the questions I ask, the precautions I take, as a parent of a child with severe food allergies, are just a little too much..

Sometimes I see the eye-rolling, the impatience.

I’m clearly viewed as:

Helicopter mom.

Sometimes I think about the absurdity, having to plan every little detail of something so simple: something my child will put in his mouth. And eat. Like every other person in the world does every day.

Sometimes every hour.

Or every few hours.

Without a thought.

But then I open the news, and see for myself.

Not asking questions.

Not taking the time to double-check.

Not remembering the meds.

Not educating those around us of the issues facing life with a food allergy.

Sometimes results in this tragedy about a teen named Andrea. Or this one, involving a boy named Simon. Or this one, another teen, Morgan.

Every September, as kids get settled into the school year, deaths from anaphylaxis occur. These three have all happened in the past few weeks.

After the fact, we all scratch our heads and wonder.

Why didn’t they just ask what was in their food?

Where was the Epi-pen or Auvi-Q?

Why didn’t they just say no?

Their deaths?

Senseless

Preventable.

And this mom is reminded, in spite of the eye-rolling and name-calling by other parents.

There’s a reason we do what we do.

And for the questions we need to ask repeatedly.

If not, the consequences can be seen in the headlines.

To me, the answer lies solely with inclusion.

Kids do not want to stand out. They want to participate in school activities and events and not have to look different by asking 100 questions about their food or having attention drawn to the medication pack protruding from their waist.

If food wasn’t such a big deal, kids with food allergies wouldn’t be considered different at all.

And if food wasn’t such a big deal during the school day, parents of food allergic kids can put their anxieties away for the 7 or so hours they are in the hands of educators.

So I ask:

Why IS there so much extra food at school?

And how many times am I going to be asked this school year to decide on whether my child can participate. Let’s see….

14 kids x 14 birthdays.

Teachers birthday.

Halloween party. Thanksgiving Party, Xmas Party. Easter. End of School.

Let’s add 2 more random events…there always are a few!

That adds up to 22 potential opportunities for extra treats in school out of about 37 weeks, an average of about every other week.

We have a small classroom; try doing the math for your kids–I’ll bet it’s even more often.

Food allergic kids and parents like me will be asked to make to-eat-or-not-to-eat judgement calls like this or just have our children excluded from the celebration (the most likely choice) almost every other week of the school year. Providing a special “allergy-friendly” treat for these instances worked when my son was younger, but not anymore. It’s not about the food for my son, he doesn’t care. It’s about participating with the class; not being singled out.

And non-food allergic kids will just be given lots of extra food and sugar they don’t really need.

Every-other-week.

Really, I’m not trying to be a kill-joy. I love food too. And I love celebrating my child’s birthday.

But don’t you think every-other-week is kind of often?

Too often?

Food isn’t the only thing in life that’s fun.

There are alternate ways to celebrate.

It’s not just for the sake of food allergies, most of my friends aren’t exactly happy with the amount of extra, unplanned sugar and treats their non-allergic kids consume during the school day.

How about just taking a few extra minutes to think of alternatives, that can include everyone?

My son’s favorite: how about a few more minutes of recess as a treat? So much healthier; the kids enjoy it much more. And instead of kids returning from the celebration on a sugar-high (except for the food allergic child, who is just angry he had to opt out or have a dry allergy-friendly cookie instead), they come in from their extra few minutes of running around more focused and ready to learn.

If you are unsure this will work, or are drawing a blank on ideas, check out this link with some great alternative ideas for non-food treats and rewards.

Parents, teachers, think it over.

Fewer food treats: more active or non-food treats, you’ll have a safe classroom and healthier kids all-around.

Food allergic kids and parents like me won’t feel pressured to take risks, or be embarrassed or hesitant to ask questions, in fear of being thought of as one-of-those-helicopter parents.

All kids will be included.

There will be fewer allergic reactions.

And most of all, we can all focus on what our kids are learning during the day.

Not what they are eating.

How about you? Do you have ideas to share on minimizing extra foods in the classroom and focusing on non-food rewards? Would love to hear your stories, comments, experiences.

13 thoughts on “Keeping our Classrooms Safe

  1. As a mom to a food allergic kid, of course I totally relate and agree. But I will add that as a food allergic and food sensitive adult, I’m also so tired of how food centric of society is. (not just American society by the way) Why can’t we socialize or celebrate without food? You’d think with so many health issues related to diet, we’d be backing off food as a centerpiece but I don’t see that happening. I can only offer empathy and agreement. I don’t know the solution

    • Hello Jen– I totally hear you! I think food is just the default. People continue to use food for celebrations/social gatherings/rewards because they always have, and because it’s easy, not because it’s the best way. I hope by putting the idea out there, maybe we can all think twice, and find some different solutions, where some of us change that default into something more healthy for everyone. Thanks so much for your comment -love to hear from you!

  2. Robin! So great to see you’ve posted, though guiltily I haven’t really been on reader in months! I love your ideas and link to other ideas for non-food class birthday celebrations. While we don’t have any life threatening allergies, every other week IS too much sugar. Special activities or attention would be such an improvement in so many ways.

    • thank you!! I know, really? It has been so hard to sit down & write and push that publish button. Sometimes it takes this kind of thing to eat at me a little and force me to sit and write it down. Hopefully I can keep it going. Definitely need to catch up w/you!! Re: food–It’s such a no brainer to cut the amount of food, and if a few of us start switching over gradually, maybe it’ll be helpful to all of us.

  3. It stinks to have to have this as an issue in such a structured environment as school or camp. Maybe the school should consider a policy of no food treats for birthdays (many schools have this, like the schools our children attend). And if they ever allow treats they must be pre-packaged … no homemade. There are all sorts of eating restrictions (allergies, kosher, gluten -free and others) that people want to know what’s in their, or their children’s food.

    • Thanks Ken and Sharon for your thoughts! It’s great to hear how other schools handle this. I so wish that was the case w/us, but don’t really want to go there at this point (trying to enforce rules around it). You are right when you say “people want to know what’s in their children’s food” and I don’t think most of us parents know all this extra food is happening so often! I get the calls because I have the allergy-kid and he requires permission (which as you can tell, typically results in a no). I was a little shocked when I did the math on the extra sugar/treat potential these kids have during the school year. If most parents realized this, I think more would start thinking of ways to reduce extra treats, or celebrate in other ways, rather than just with food. At least I hope! Thanks again, so great to hear from you two!

  4. My daughter has a severe peanut allergy, in 2013 her teacher gave her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich provided by the school’s cafeteria. As I sat there seeing the doctors struggling to do all they could do to save her I just couldn’t help but blame myself for not making sure that the teachers/cafeteria staff knew how dangerous food allergies are… I was just too trusting. Now I am constantly making sure my daughters teachers and school is up to date with allergy information and have been trying to get food allergies part of the schools health curriculum but the school district doesn’t take me serious and now I don’t have a clue as to what else I should do.
    If food allergies were part of the school curriculum people would grow up with that knowledge. Then maybe in the future less kids would lose their lives because of food allergies.

    • Luisiana, thanks so much for sharing your story. How awful that must have been to witness your daughter go through this. All of us with kids affected by food allergy know this so important but for some reason, there are skeptics out there who just do not want to believe our issues are as serious as they are. And as for the “inclusion”, most people just roll their eyes and tell us our kids should easily just “get over it”. Anxiety is one of the by-products of Food allergy, and this constant exclusion is really harmful. It worries me our kids are going to just want to stay home, never go anywhere, because whereever they go it’s a constant battle to avoid things. Not good. Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s because of the misunderstanding with the work “allergy” itself, since most allergies do not cause anaphylaxis. Or maybe because of the growing food-restriction lifestyle gives real food allergies a bad name. But it’s a definite struggle to get that empathy we as a community need. Thank you so much again for adding your voice here.

  5. Robin, your commentary hits the mark on what it’s like to see this scenario unfold — and repeat itself. My son would grab a treat at home and opted to have nothing at school but it makes me sad to think of him sitting there, excluded. There’s less of that now in high school. You are absolutely right that getting an extra recess would be a much appreciated — and healthy – treat!

    I think ten years from now, allergy kids will not have to endure the barrage of treats at every turn. The pain is in the meantime! Many schools are beginning to get it, thank goodness, but we sure have a long way to go. I wish policies would be adopted more readily from the top down. Parents who are in the minority are put in an awkward position when pushing for new policies if the school staff doesn’t have a 100% buy-in. The risk of the child with FA getting a finger pointed at them for removing treats from the classroom is pretty significant. What a terrible quandary!

    If there are other families affected by FA, perhaps you could get a conversation going to see if they have the same concerns? I hope the principal at your son’s school will hear about your experience as, at the very least, it will plant to seed on a policy that is bound to change.

    • Karen, thanks so much for your comment–you understand this perfectly, and I know have worked hard in your community to draft a new food policy at your school. The thing is –my son at the moment is the only one w/ a major food allergy! Prior to this, when we first came to this school, there were 4 or 5. But amount of treats are definitely on a classroom basis, and celebrating birthdays seem to be sacred. In terms of less-food-for-health it’s my understanding staff has discussed “lowering food in classrooms” for health, with the nurse totally for that, but like you said, it’s not top down–so there basically are few teachers doing anything about it. It needs to be policy, not a suggestion. And now my heads spinning…now just how to approach it??! Hmmm…thank you Karen!!

  6. It really is so scary. My son is allergic to nuts and peanuts and I’m continually shocked at how some of our very best friends forget that it’s a big deal. Thanks for writing this. People need to understand how awful it is to have to say no all of the time because you’re not sure what’s in something.

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