Multiple Severe Food Allergies and Our School-Age Child
By Nancy Berman, AAIA member, Montreal, Quebec
When my son Ben started kindergarten five years ago, I was pleased that an allergy protocol was already in place at his school. Students were not permitted to bring to school food items containing peanuts, the nurse was informed concerning allergic children, an extra epi-pen and recent photo of the child were kept in the staff lounge, and all staff were trained in emergency treatment of anaphylaxis. However, although the protocol was reassuring, given Ben’s potentially life-threatening allergy to peanuts, it did very little to address his other potentially life-threatening allergies to dairy products, tree nuts, eggs, and sesame seeds.
While I was grateful that I did not have to worry too much about exposure to peanuts, I knew that there would be no way to ban the other items on the list, especially milk. Ben’s allergy to milk is at least as serious as his allergy to peanuts (perhaps even more so), yet I knew that every child in the lunch room would receive a carton of milk at every lunch. I also knew that I could not bring him home for lunch, as I work, and that I did not want him to eat alone (in the Principal’s office, for example) every day. With these factors in mind, I approached the situation as I had always approached Ben’s multiple food allergies: rather than undertaking the impossible task of trying to guarantee an allergen-free environment, I decided to focus on educating Ben, part of my ongoing mission to prepare him for life in a world full of “dangerous” food items. My aim has always been to foster extreme caution, but not fear (I worry enough for the two of us!). Now, as he heads into grade 5, I know that he will not eat anything unless he is completely certain that it is safe. This doesn’t mean that accidents can’t happen, but at least I know that he has in large part taken responsibility for his own safety.
Needless to say, I do my utmost to reduce any chance of exposure, especially to the dreaded, spillable, ubiquitous milk. For Ben’s first three years in elementary school, he ate in the same room as his classmates, but at a desk that was separated from the others. Although not ideal from a social perspective, it seemed a good compromise, and he felt safe while still being within talking distance of his friends. By grade three he was allowed to sit at the end of a row of desks, next to one or another of his good friends. Indeed, the protective and understanding attitudes of his friends has been one of the (admittedly few) positive aspects of our situation. In grade four, Ben started sitting where and with whom he wanted. I know that if even a drop of milk or yogurt touches his sandwich, he will actually go hungry rather than risk eating it; to me this is reassuring enough to allow him to enjoy eating with his friends. And as it turns out, he’s never really “gone hungry,” although once or twice he has refused to eat his sandwich because he was worried it was contaminated. For extra insurance, every fall I leave a frozen, microwaveable meal in the school freezer to be reheated and served if necessary.
Of course there are still days when he feels left out: once a month most kids (including my younger child) participate in pizza day and sub day, and several times throughout the year the grade six students sell frozen yogurt. On these days I do my best to send a substitute: pizza made with soy-based cheese, homemade turkey subs, homemade tofu-based frozen yogurt in a thermos, and so on. (And here I must add that without my husband’s experimental, adventurous attitude towards cooking, and willingness to put in the hours late in the evening, I’d never be able to keep up.) I’m never sure if these treats only draw more attention to his food allergies, but he seems to like them, and he tolerates with great patience the questions and curiosity of his peers.
Just as scary as starting school were the early invitations to other kids’ houses, and the later invitations to sleepovers. Although now Ben has a close circle of friends whose parents are well-informed about his allergies, and who tolerate my insistence on reading all ingredient labels and even supplying Ben’s food, new situations often provoke massive panic on my part. But again, I try my utmost not to transfer these fears to Ben; I know that he won’t eat anything he’s unsure of without first calling me and reading me the ingredient list (a challenging feat in and of itself). He usually insists on bringing his own lunchbox to birthday parties rather than inconveniencing the hosts or taking the risk of eating food that may be contaminated.
I think the social implications of always being different, of rarely being able to partake of the same food as everyone else, are important and underestimated when considering food allergies. That being said, the only way to guarantee as safe an environment as possible, while not encouraging a state of fear in the child with food allergies, is to educate the child from as young an age as possible (my son used to pretend to read labels at the age of 2!), to encourage them to do what they need to do to feel safe but not scared (even if that means bringing a lunch box to Pizza Hut), and to make sure that their food allergies interfere as little as possible in their social life and indeed their life in general.
from Allergy & Asthma News, Issue 3 2005