We encounter food daily— eating our favorite meal, snack, or smelling something delicious. For many of us, we have the ability of choosing food to eat based on how good it looks or smells, but for some, exposures to food must be approached with diligence because of the threat of allergens. Every day people with food allergies must think twice about the food they encounter. The number of individuals, particularly children, affected by food allergies is more common than ever—having grown 18% between 1997 and 2007 (Branum and Lukacs, 2008). Subsequently, the number of hospitalizations with diagnoses related to food allergies has increased among children (Branum and Lukacs, 2008). Today, 1 in 13 children are affected by at least one food allergy (Food Allergy Research & Education, 2015). Approximately 16-18% of children affected by food allergies have had a reaction in school, of which 25% had no prior diagnosis of a food allergy (FARE, 2015). As this population grows, researchers are investigating treatments and their uses, meanwhile schools and other professionals directly working with children, both in schools and communities, are learning better ways for addressing the physical and emotional needs of children living with food allergies.
What is known about food allergies?
Although research on food allergies is evolving, currently, there is no known cure for food allergies, instead individuals must manage their allergies by avoiding certain foods (CDC, 2013; FARE, 2015). A variety of different foods have been found to cause allergic reactions. In the United States, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat account for 90% of food-related allergic reactions affecting individuals (Branum and Lukacs, 2008). The onset and severity of allergies are hard to predict prior to the first allergic reaction. While some allergies develop in infancy, others may unexpectedly develop throughout childhood, adolescence or even adulthood (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, 2012; MacKenzie, 2010).
Every day, children with food allergies are faced with challenges that affect their ability to learn and develop positive relationships with their peers (CDC, 2013). Depending on the severity of their food allergy, children may experience feelings of exclusion, anxiety, and frustration when learning to manage and cope with their diet (Cummings, Knibb, King & Lucas, 2010; MacKenzie et al., 2010). Fortunately, professionals directly working with children, both in schools and communities, have discovered ways for helping these students adjust and stay safe while they are in school.
What can schools do to foster a safe and supportive environment for students with food allergies?
In 2013, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed national guidelines to help schools improve their management of food allergies in schools. The guidelines outline five priority areas that should be addressed in each school’s management plan:
- Ensure the daily management of food allergies in individual children.
- Prepare for food allergy emergencies.
- Provide professional development on food allergies for staff members.
- Educate children and family members about food allergies.
- Create and maintain a healthy and safe educational environment.
Under each of the priority areas, the guidelines provide recommended practices for reducing the risk of exposure to food allergens. These include:
- Encouraging frequent hand washing, of staff and students, with soap before and after handling or eating food.
- When planning field trips, find out if there will be any possible risks of exposures to food allergens.
- Check labels when purchasing food products for class projects, parties, field trips, and science experiments. The Safe Snack Guide, developed by SnackSafely.com, is a good reference for finding safe snacks.
- Consider designated allergy-friendly seating arrangements in spaces where students eat meals.
- Report any concerns or accidents, such as cross contact with allergens, to parents.
- Use non-food incentives for prizes, gifts, and awards. Action for Healthy Kids has created a list of examples.
- Work with parents, the school nurse, and other school staff (e.g., Administrators, school counselors, cafeteria workers) to determine any accommodations or modifications that need to be made to prevent risks of allergies and feelings of exclusion.
- Most importantly, never exclude a student for having a food allergy from participating in an activity.
Even if you currently do not have any students in your class with food allergies, it is important to learn about food allergies and strategies for managing allergic reactions. With the growing rate of food allergies, there is always a chance you may encounter someone with a food allergy, or perhaps you may even develop one in the future.