A Food-Allergic Teen’s View on Food Bans in Schools

a teen's view on food bans in schoolsYear-after-year, as back-to-school approaches, one topic always brings out significant divisiveness in our community: whether or not schools should be “nut-free.”  It is natural, of course, for parents of school-aged children with food allergies to be very passionate about policies that they feel may threaten their child’s safety – whether by inclusion or the lack thereof in these policies!   The most important message I can send, however, is for all of us to be open to this discussion and sensitive to the opinions of others, just as we wish those without food allergy issues be sensitive to us.  We must be open to compromise that works for all and be understanding that others may have a different, but just as real and valid, perspective than ours.

Common topics for dispute in this discussion involve whether there should be nut-free schools at all, nut-free lunch tables in the cafeteria (or “nut tables” in the cafeteria), the allowance or ban of other allergens in a school, the age at which children should be able to advocate for themselves, school parties involving food, and whether there should be any food in classrooms at all – just to name some.

I’ve written about this topic multiple times in the past, the most recent being a post entitled “Nut-Free Schools or Not? Parents Weigh In”.  In response to that post, a high school junior wrote a comment about her own experience that really resonated with me.  I’m sure McKenzie’s story won’t resolve the debate, but hopefully reading this young woman’s words – a student who has dealt with this issue first-hand – will provoke further introspection for all of us.

Here is what McKenzie had to say:

“I am a junior in high school and have been dealing with anaphylaxis (extremely severe, airborne, contact, etc) to dairy all my life, and although my allergy is not one to nuts, I would like to give my input from the eyes of a child with an allergy.

When I was in elementary school, for the first three years, they had me sit at a table that faced a wall and that was designated previously as one of four “silent lunch” tables where children who misbehaved sat at.  I was the only kid in my school that had my allergy and one of the only ones that had an allergy at all.  I sat alone and that in itself was hard on me.  I felt, honestly, like I was billed as an outcast.  Not to mention, on several occasions, children that misbehaved and had silent lunch had to sit with me because the other tables were full. These children had all kinds of dairy with their lunch and when I alerted my fears to the lunch aides in the cafeteria, they disregarded my allergy as a problem and basically told me to get over it.

Another occasion was when the lunch room served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, this wasn’t a new thing either.  Yet, a set of twins that allegedly had peanut allergies had to sit next to me that day (they never had before on PB&J days, and never again did they) and they got to drink milk right next to me, yet, I couldn’t eat my PB crackers.

The fact of the matter [is] that any sort of allergy ban that is exclusive to only nuts is not practical.  If one decides to ban just nuts, then others feel entitled to their own children’s allergens being banned.  Yet, at that point, food at school should just be banned altogether.  That is outrageous, and I do not expect other people to stop eating their food for my safety because in the real world, that doesn’t happen.

Every day I face the risk of an exposure, and I’ve even had reactions to food that has been in my own house!  The parents should try their hardest to employ their child with the knowledge to feel comfortable with dealing with their allergy and make sure that the school has an action plan that it will follow in the case of an emergency.

However, I will always hate school food parties no matter what.”

The opinions expressed here are McKenzie’s.  Many may disagree and even feel angered or threatened by them.  There are parts that I too am not in full agreement with.  However, we cannot and should not ignore the unfair treatment McKenzie has had to endure.  And we must wonder how many more similar stories there are like hers. Hundreds?  Probably too low.  Thousands? Probably.  Tens of thousands?  Maybe?! Regardless, we are all in this together!

Agree or disagree, I hope others found this story to be thought-provoking and maybe even mind-opening.  (Unfortunately, I’m sure a lot of you read it and said “Exactly!,” living though this with your children.)  I thank McKenzie for taking the time to share her experiences and wish her luck on her future endeavors and upcoming college search.

As always, I encourage and welcome your respectful comments below.  Agree or disagree?  Have a similar experience to share?  Want to propose a solution?  Let’s hear it!

And as part of our never-ending quest to help everyone find more accommodating and comforting places to dine with ANY type of food allergy, we humbly ask that you take a moment to rate any recent dining out experiences.  Answer just 3 multiple choice questions and add an optional comment. It only takes a minute or two, but helps everyone.

Comments

    Author:
    Chelsea Kimbrough
    Written:


    My daughter is allergic to egg, dairy, beef and pork and she’s a picky eater. Peanut butter is one thing that she loves to eat that will also help her gain weight. Most days she takes peanut butter sandwiches to lunch and I would hate for her not to have an option because other students have a peanut allergy. I definitely understand the precautions but it is not inclusive and unfortunately, regarding food allergies, we can’t ban all foods. We have to teach our children how to be safe and respectful of the needs of others, but the world will not revolve around our kids and the earlier we get them to understand that, the better off we’ll all be.

    Author:
    Susan Beaver
    Written:


    While my mind would be put at ease if there were no nuts at school, I realize that is not realistic nor is it fair to the majority. While both my sons have life threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, they know that other children often eat pb&j as well as other ‘nut filled goodies.’ We are lucky in that, at their school, there is a nut free table and children who are not eating anything with nuts are encouraged to sit there too. While our kids are segregated due to the severity of their allergies, the school has made accomodations, and that is all we can expect. It is part of their lives and will be forever, unless, hopefully, their allergies lessen or go away! As a parent, I want and need to protect them and they are excellent advocates for themselves regarding their allergy. I am proud of them for that. I feel for all of you who have life threatening allergies. It is something most can’t comprehend or understand the impact it has on every day living.

    Author:
    Donna Fink
    Written:


    Hello, I can appreciate this article as I have a son who has a severe peanut, egg, corn allergy so much so if popcorn is popped inside the school he at times has difficulty breathing with long term exposure. We have raised him with the belief this is your “challenge” and as such we are not asking those around us to accommodate him. I use the term “challenge” as I do not care for “issue” Everyone in his school knows who he is and respects his space. He is not asked to move to another table. Children who bring the p&j sandwich to school voluntarily sit elsewhere…out of respect. It goes both ways, should he sit next to the p&J kid he excuses himself to another area. We never have made this about anyone else. Also, this is a very small but important part of his life, we do not obsess over it. We as a family have learned to roll with it and take each stage of him growing up into becoming a productive member of society rather than society doing for him.

    Author:
    Nora
    Written:


    OMG, I completely understand and sympathize with you! My son has severe nut allergies and ‘the naught table’ was all he got; alone, as well!!
    He hated school food parties also.
    As a college student, supposedly in a room full of ‘adults’; I had anaphylactic reactions 3 times in less than 2 months over a banana! The guy was spoken to and we had a ‘no food in class’ policy anyway.
    People are so selfish!!!
    When I was in grade school, those tables and desks were scrubbed every day! We never had the extensive illnesses or food dangers.
    As far as being told to “get over it “. I have no publishable words for that.

    Author:
    Danielle
    Written:


    My heart breaks for her, and yet I can relate so well to her through my own son. He’s only 4, but anaphylactic and contact/airborne reactive to dairy as well. These past for years we’ve learned first hand how people just don’t understand dairy allergies and her story is our fear for his schooling. They will never ban dairy, or egg, or wheat or many of the other top allergens, so she raises a great point in questioning whether a ban on nuts is effective or fair. I think that good policies such as hand washing and cleaning accompanied with education is a better tool to keep our kids safe at school. If the students understand how to keep their classmates safe and the schools create policies to navigate that while empowering food allergic kids, everyone wins.

    Author:
    Kim
    Written:


    As a food allergy parent, I prefer an allergy aware environment over bans – after all, you can’t ban everything that everyone is severely allergic to. Make school a place where kids can gain age-appropriate responsibility for their own allergies over the years in an environment that is allergy educated and aware. I do feel that schools with a separate cafeteria should look to make classrooms (and in-class parties) food free, especially at the lower elementary level where they don’t always wash up well and their hands are always in their mouth/nose/eyes.

    I appreciate McKenzie’s comments and struggle with how her school handled things, definitely far from ideal. I think she makes excellent points.

    Author:
    Bekah
    Written:


    Allergies suck. But. Its life. And we, like a mom stated above, wont make it everyone else problem. My 8 year old son is anaphylactic to eggs, baked and all eggs. He is keenly aware and knows how to take precautions. If someone has a sandwich with Mayonnaise he needs the same precautions as someone with a nut allergy needs with a pbj. We cant possibly ban all the allergens. We can however educate and teach our kids about caring as a community for each other. It starts with us as parents to remain positive. I do on occasion send PBJ to school with my kids. But. Every single day I do, I remind them to be sure they take the precautions they need to, as in wiping mouths with their wipes, thoroughly washing hands and making sure they never ever share lunches with anyone because we never know what someone else is allergic to.

    Author:
    Jennifer
    Written:


    I 100% agree with this statement, “The fact of the matter [is] that any sort of allergy ban that is exclusive to only nuts is not practical. If one decides to ban just nuts, then others feel entitled to their own children’s allergens being banned. Yet, at that point, food at school should just be banned altogether. That is outrageous, and I do not expect other people to stop eating their food for my safety because in the real world, that doesn’t happen.” My daughter is allergic to gluten, corn, dairy, and soy. Until this year, there has not been a child with a peanut allergy in her class. There is a ban on nuts at her school but there is no ban on gluten, corn, dairy or soy. My personal opinion is you either ban them all or none at all. As an allergy mom, I understand how terrifying it is to have your child be exposed to those allergens. However, cutting out an entire food group because of a potential allergy when allowing the other foods when you have a child with a known allergy isn’t right either. Education is the key (of children AND teachers), not all out bans on food.

    I also agree with her that I will forever hate class parties.

    Author:
    Maria
    Written:


    As a parent, of a 6 yr old who has anaphylatic reactions to dairy as well, and can totally relate to what McKenzie has wrote. It is sad that some schools are so ignorant regarding allergies. My son had experienced being isolated at his own table during meal times at a summer program. It hurt my heart to hear my son explain how he was the only child at his table. I ended up pulling him from that summer program. When my son was in preschool, they wanted to leave his epipen down in the clinic room (locked up also) when his classroom was over 600 yards away! I asked the county health nurse, how soon does it take for a child to be deprived of oxygen before there are major complications? She looked at me like I had 5 heads! Needless to say, now… there is an epipen with my son at all times, wherever he travels on school grounds. All the teachers and paras are trained in the use of the epipens. Until my son is old enough to carry his own epipen, I will advocate for him…non stop.
    Even when he wanted a pair of those light up tennis shoes? I had inquired to see (before I purchased them) if the child in his class would be affected by the shimmering lights. She had a seizure disorder. I try to instill compassion and life lessons to my son. Build him up to be empathetic to any areas of difficulties people may have.
    It saddens my heart to hear what some children have to go through regarding their allergies. Yet, what I have come to realize, unless you, yourself have been touched with anaphylatic allergies one truly does not understand unless they walk a mile in your moccasins.

    Author:
    Joyce Anderson
    Written:


    We are peanut, tree nut, sesame allergic in our family. This year we are at a new school that *does* have an allergy table, but it’s not specific to any one allergy or another. This table is also over in a corner. We talked about where my 4th grade son would like to sit this year at the new school. He chose to continue sitting with his peers at the regular table (as he’s done since kinder). I actually hoped he would pick that, because his allergy already segregates him in many ways. He has learned, however, how to advocate for himself and is very careful. I favor allergy aware over bans. That said, I’d be happy if all schools every where discontinued food treats for birthdays and parties with food. Last school year we had a group of over achieving parents in our class that insisted on elaborate food parties for every last thing. There were also birthday treats, far too often. I don’t mind making a safe treat, but no one needs treats in school on a weekly basis. It was so bad that a divorcing couple of parents kept bringing in treats to spite the other. I insisted that be shut down. My heart goes out to this youth who wrote in. It’s horrible that her allergy is not acknowledged and that she was segregated out at the silent table. I hope she knows that there are many families that support her though, and are always ready to make an accommodation for a kid like her — no matter what.

    Author:
    Jill
    Written:


    My son (now 23) is pn/tn/sesame/shellfish allergic. When he was in kindergarten and the first in his district with food allergies, every precaution was taken (we thought). 6 weeks into kindergarten; story time in the library I got “the call”. He was given epinephrine by nurse and left in an ambulance (Reeses pieces smeared on carpet near him=mucous membrane=anaphylaxis). His classroom was nut free and at lunch, he sat at a circle (and wished he could sit at a rectangle (table)-his words) at 5years old. After that, they made all common areas nut free. He had his own keyboard in computer time, art supplies, etc as they knew it was possible that cross contact was probable with little kids involved. That didn’t stop a teacher from wolfing down a PB sandwich one day as I sat next to her in the gym, but overall, the visual of him being strapped to a stretcher and the lights of the ambulance outside the school had an impact on all for many years. I really believe food in the lunch room should not be limited and there should be options for the person with allergies to sit outside of areas of the general student body during younger grades while the learning process is evolving. Once he got into middle school, we worked to allow him to sit with the others in his class and manage this on his own in order to develop the skill set to survive the real world. For him, this worked. He is driving me crazy at 23 not carrying an epi-pen during his “invincible” stage and there by the Grace of God…… Thank you Paul for always providing wonderful opportunities for educated and honest conversations!

    Author:
    Katherine Eppley
    Written:


    My now 20 year old son is anaphylactic to peanut and also had severe reactions to all other legumes and egg which no longer cause reactions. We worked with his preschool to develop protocols for Carter’s peanut allergy as they had never had a child with such severe allergies. I went into the classes to talk on child appropriate levels using professional materials and the kids learned to be allergy aware. There were no food bans as we agreed that anywhere else we went outside of home and school would have peanut products. We taught Carter how to watch out for himself as Best he could. I also volunteered as a room mom in early elementary which made the teachers super happy and relieved and took care of classroom party issues. We all worked together and if something couldn’t be arranged then Carter had an alternative activity. People never really understand what an anaphylactic level allergy is like unless they have personal experience so helping to educate folks is a good thing. I have anaphylactic to dairy and agave, and my older son had migraines triggered by certain foods. Dinner could be a circus until I finally found meals we could all eat. As a teacher, I have always been hyper aware of students with allergies and took care to design activities involving food so that all my students could participate. Awareness is the key!

    Author:
    Maureen Burke
    Written:


    What Mckenzie described is very unfortunate and I think she handled it well. Awareness is the key and very often the parents are the ones who need to educate the schools. The best thing is to educate your child when they are old enough. That leaves a gap of time when a child might not be able to effectively advocate for themselves when they are in elementary school. That is where education come in. FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) has great materials to use when educating teachers and students. There are no easy answers. I struggled with which allergens to make my cafe, deli and bakery free of. It came down to what allergens we could reasonably accommodate or isolate in our fast paced environment. Since almost everything is made from scratch here; I was able to be free of: Wheat, Rye, Barley, Oats, Soy, Egg, Peanut, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish, Sesame and Milk. However, when it comes to real dairy or coconut I had to make sure we could isolate those items to prevent cross contact. So, we do allow someone who can eat dairy products to order from a separate kitchen where we can add a slice of real cheese to their sandwich or shredded cheese to their pizza. (If I did not have the dairy option I would not stay in business because 75% of our business comes through that kitchen line!)
    -How would a school decide which allergens to ban? It would have to depend on each school district and the allergies of the students in each individual school. To safely feed food allergy students, they would need to know who are the suppliers and where is cross contact from allergens going to occur. I seriously doubt that will ever happen. How do they prevent students and parents from bringing in food with those allergens in the food? There are times when I would have to put a food bouncer on the door to our cafe. There is so much that has to be taken into consideration and there are no easy answers. It is my hope that awareness and education stay at the forefront in all discussions because that is the only way we will see positive change. Right now there are many colleges who are stepping up to the plate to safely feed those with food allergies and Celiac Disease and that is definitely encouraging!

    Author:
    Tammy Robertson
    Written:


    My daughter is ana to dairy as well including skin contact. It is one of the main reasons we decided to homeschool. We felt that we could provide a better experience considering the risk and it has worked well for us. I’m not suggesting every one do this. But I feel very much for this girl and I appreciate her words! We hate food parties too. (I am ana to cinnamon even air born so I hate fall as well.)

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