The politics of food allergy

Image: Flickr/Dan4th

Food allergies are in the news again, and the conversation is getting heated. For starters, there was some national coverage around a Florida first-grader who’s so allergic to peanuts that her classmates need to follow special rules to keep her safe. The safety measures go beyond separate lunch tables and restriction of class-wide treats like cupcakes; all the children in her class need to wash their hands every time they enter classroom, and rinse their mouths out after eating.

To adults, the rules may sound simple to follow, but for a room full of 6-year-olds, most of whom don’t understand how food can be deadly for some people, the steps aren’t always so easy to remember. In addition to strict safety standards around food in the girl’s classroom, the school recently brought in a peanut sniffing dog to make sure there were no hidden allergy triggers lurking elsewhere in the building.

It’s a lot of regulation and upkeep for a small school, and some parents say the extra teacher attention, class time and money spent on just one child is negatively affecting the rest of the class.

“If I had a daughter who had a problem, I would not ask everyone else to change their lives to fit my life,” said one parent at the school.

Michael Pistiner, MD, MMSc

Over a thousand miles away in Chicago, there’s another food fight brewing. In January, the city’s board of education passed a mandate that would require elementary schools to serve free breakfast in every classroom, providing a much needed healthy meal to thousands of children from low-income families. No one opposes feeding hungry children, but there is a segment of Chicago’s parent population that’s vocally opposing the program: parents of kids with food allergies.

Breakfast foods are often the most dangerous for people with food allergies to be around, because so many of them contain egg, milk or nut products. And in classrooms filled with younger children, many of whom are likely to be a little messy, having breakfast served at kids’ desks could pose very serious concerns for students with allergies. In response, many Chicago parents flooded school board meetings and signed petitions demanding changes to the mandate that would lessen their allergic children’s exposure to potentially harmful foods.

“Keeping children with food allergies safe at school can be tricky because there are many different environments within the buildings, and multiple adults in charge of their care,” says Michael Pistiner, MD MMSc, an allergy specialist with Children’s Hospital Boston. “With so many variables in play, it’s difficult to ensure that proper avoidance strategies for kids with allergies are being followed, or that adult supervisors will be fully prepared for a reaction should one occur.”

Here, Pistiner offers advice to parents on keeping their kids with food allergies safe at school.

In the coming weeks Thrive will further address the polarizing effect food allergy is having on some school districts, as well as offer tips on how parents, educators and kids can all work together to create safer environments for children with food allergies.