A peanut butter and jelly sandwich may be just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to most kids, but for many children, it can be deadly. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies in children under the age of 18 has increased by 18% over the ten-year period between 1997 and 2007. With food allergies affecting more than 3 million children in the U.S. and numbers still on the rise, more people – from President Obama to the school lunch lady – are beginning to take notice.
Some states and school districts are taking matters into their own hands, publishing and implementing policies that address how to manage and treat food allergies at school. Massachusetts is one of the leading states in Food Allergy Policy implementation and, in recent years, mandated the reporting of instances of Epinephrine administration in schools statewide. After monitoring these reports, Massachusetts officials found that nearly 25% of the reported instances were for children with no known allergy previously. And according to the School Health Policies and Programs Study’s national survey from 2006, only 45.8% of states and 40.8% of districts provided model policies to districts and schools on severe food or other allergies. While awareness and action seem to be on the rise, it's clear that there's still much to be done.
Want to keep your child safe, educated and prepared when it comes to food allergies? Here are 7 ways to get started:
- Prepare Your Child. Making sure your kids are prepared (both food-allergic and non-allergic alike) is the first step in the equation. When it comes to your child with food allergies, you can start teaching how to manage his allergy in an age-appropriate way from even as early as three years old, and continue to add more responsibility as he gets older. Whether it’s learning not to share his food with other kids, knowing how to read and understand labels, recognizing the symptoms of an allergic reaction or simply knowing how to say “No thank you” when offered food that may be dangerous, your child’s understanding of the role he plays in his own health is imperative.
- Communicate with Your School. One of the best things you can do for your child with allergies is talk to your school officials ahead of time. Lynda Mitchell, CEO of Kids with Food Allergies, advises parents not to wait until the last minute to do it over the summer when teachers and nurses are gone. Approach the school in the spring before the next school year begins, introduce yourself to the principal, teachers and school nurses, and start talking. That way, your child will be protected from the first day of school. Once the lines of communication have been opened and established, the school is more likely to be accommodating when it comes to the needs of your child.
- Set a Plan in Place. Experts agree that safety and prevention outside the home begins at home. A parent's first job is to develop an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP), which should include everything from reports from your primary health-care providers or allergists to a list of some safe foods, and detail your child’s allergy and medication regimen. Mitchell says that when working with your child’s school, you should set up both a “Management Plan” with guidelines for how to manage your child’s allergies as well as a “Treatment Plan,” which outlines what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. One of the most widely recommended and utilized plans is the Food Allergy Action Plan (.pdf) (FAAP) developed by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Most importantly, Mitchell says that parents should review these plans with the school nurse and your child’s teachers prior to the start of each new school term.
- Talk to Other Parents and Children. Many parents of non-allergic children may not be aware of the seriousness and the scope of your child’s food allergies. “The stakes are high and often there is a lot of uncertainty, which can lead to fear and fear can lead to divisiveness,” says Dr. Michael Pistiner, a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Addressing the uncertainty with communication and education, not only about the specific needs of your child, but also about the nature of food allergies in general, really makes a difference, says Pistiner. Mitchell urges parents to remain calm and collected, rather than emotional, when talking with others (whether its school officials or other parents) about their child’s food allergies. Communicating clearly and making the subject intelligible and approachable will garner the best results for everyone.
- Birthday Parties, Field Trips and School Events, Oh My! Field trips, birthday parties and camps are all “high risk events,” says Mitchell, “where routines are broken and nurses are often not present.” Parents need to pay close attention to these situations, says Mitchell, and arm their child as well as the adult supervisors with the appropriate food, medication and information they need ahead of time. Moreover, parents should accompany their food-allergic children to these kinds of events whenever possible. The next time your child’s school is having a bake sale for example, you can volunteer to work the tables but also take the opportunity to contribute some allergy-safe goodies to the spread for your child and any other food-allergic children to enjoy.
- Power to the People! One of the most effective ways you can advocate for your child with food allergies is to contact your state and federal legislators. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act (FAAMA), which calls for voluntary national guidelines to help schools manage students affected by food allergy and anaphylaxis, is being reintroduced to the new Congress, and has already been co-sponsored by some U.S. Senators and Representatives. You can support the measure by contacting your Senator or Representative and sharing your experiences and concerns. Whether it’s by telephone, fax, e-mail, or letter, remember that you are your child’s most effective and informed champion when it comes to his health.
- Be Supportive. What about kids who are not food allergic? Non-allergic children have more of an impact on the health and happiness of a food-allergic child than they may realize. Dr. Pistiner says the most important thing kids without food allergies can do is to be supportive of their friends who are food-allergic. A study conducted by Sampson, Furlong, and Sicherer of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that kids with food allergies were more concerned about being different than they were about being sick from their allergies, and were more likely to take risks as a result. Pistiner notes that oftentimes, kids with food allergies don't want to be the ones to talk to their friends about their allergies, preferring to have an adult do the talking instead. “These kids just want people around them to know more about food allergies in general,” says Pistiner. Parents can do their part by talking to their child’s friends and parents who are non-allergic and make the issue a non-intimidating subject that everyone can understand.
The good news is that the level of food allergy awareness in schools and elsewhere is rising, as more families, school administrators and legislators take notice. However you decide to advocate for your child with food allergies, remember that a combination of communication and education is the key to your child’s health and happiness.