"The lunch bell rings and Johnny enthusiastically starts to eat his tuna salad sandwich, apple, cookie, and milk. As he is chatting with his friends, he suddenly starts to feel sick. His mouth feels itchy and his tummy starts to hurt. Johnny finds his teacher and tells her he is not feeling well. His teacher is aware that Johnny has a food allergy and recognizes the signs of a serious allergic reaction. She gives him life-saving medication and calls 9-1-1."
May is Allergy Awareness Month: it's a great time to talk about how we can create safe and inclusive environments for children with food allergies so they may safely eat, learn, and play.
In Canada, approximately 300,000 children have food allergies. The most common food allergens are eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, sesame, seafood, wheat, and sulphites. Anaphylaxis is the most serious type of allergic reaction and can be deadly if untreated.
As a dietitian who has supported families with an allergic child, I understand that keeping your child safe at school can seem like a daunting task. I have also come to understand that prevention is not enough. While some schools will ask parents not to send foods with certain allergens like peanuts to classrooms, it is important that students and schools have the knowledge and skills to respond to allergic emergencies appropriately. Creating allergy-aware schools is everyone's job!
What can schools do?
All school boards are required to develop an allergy-aware policy as well as an individual anaphylaxis emergency plan for each student with a serious allergy. In addition, schools can:
- Work with parents to develop realistic prevention strategies. For example, some schools have "allergy-aware" eating areas while other schools have specific rules about allergens in the classroom.
- Support ongoing training for all staff including teachers, bus drivers, and food service staff.
- Consider non-food items for some class and school celebrations.
- Take steps to ensure students with allergies are not bullied or left out.
- Raise awareness about food allergies in the classroom, at school assemblies, or consider running a school-wide allergy awareness challenge.
What can parents and caregivers of children with allergies do?
- Inform your school about your child's allergy.
- Provide your school with epinephrine auto-injectors, if needed.
- Plan ahead for field trips and special events.
- Teach your child how to protect themselves and reduce risk of exposure.
- Read food labels carefully every time you shop and be aware of cross-contamination.
- Guide your child as they learn to take on more responsibility for managing their allergy.
What can children with allergies do?
- Wash hands with soap and water before and after eating.
- Do not share food, utensils, or containers.
- Be careful with food prepared by others.
- Carry an epinephrine auto-injector at all times (by age 6 or 7 children are usually mature enough to do so).
- Tell your friends about your allergies and what they should do in an allergic emergency.
- Tell an adult as soon as you suspect an accidental exposure to an allergen.
Looking for more information about food allergies at school?
Here are a few of my top picks for resources and tools for parents, caregivers, or anyone working in and with schools:
- Northern Health's Resource Guide for Allergy Aware Schools includes key messages, tools, and resources for parents and schools.
- Check out this handy back-to-school allergy checklist.
- Take a free online Anaphylaxis at School course.
- Check out the Peanut and Nut Aware Lunch and Snacks handout for tasty peanut and nut aware lunch and snack ideas.
Looking for personalized support? HealthLink BC's Allergy Nutrition Service provides support to families who have concerns and question around food allergies. Just dial 8-1-1 and ask to speak with a registered dietitian.