Food Allergies

Food allergies are a growing concern within the school environment.  Today, roughly 1 in 13 children – or 2 in every classroom – will have a food allergy.  In approximately 25 percent of the reactions that occur at school, the student had not yet been diagnosed!  In addition, about a third of kids with food allergies report that they have been bullied specifically because of their allergies.

Feeding a child with food allergies can be stressful. When you consider the additional challenge of juggling multiple allergies and other special dietary needs among the students, it’s easy to see how everyone can become overwhelmed.  Physicians, families, and school staff should work together to formulate reasonable and practical plans that will keep students with food allergies safe.

Tips to providing reasonable accommodations for children with food allergies:

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) regulations make it clear that substitutions to the regular meal (both breakfast and lunch) must be made for children who are unable to eat school meals because of their disabilities, when that need is certified by a licensed physician. Click here to learn more.
    • If difficulties arise in obtaining the needed information, the parents must work with the school to obtain a complete medical statement for the child. It is important that the family understand that the school is unable to provide food substitutions or modifications without an adequate diet order or diet prescription.
    • A Food Allergy Action Plan should be on file and shared with all school staff for every student with food allergies. This document outlines treatment recommended treatment in case of an allergic reaction, includes emergency contact numbers and is signed by the student’s physician.  A sample Food Allergy Action Plan can be found here.
    • Know what to avoid and substitute. Do not rely on lists of “safe” prepackaged food, because ingredients can change often and without warning, making such lists out-of-date quickly.
    • Read labels. Develop a system for checking ingredient labels carefully for every food item to be served to the student with the allergy. One student who was allergic to legumes (such as beans, soy, and peanuts) had an allergic reaction after eating cheese pizza brought into the school classroom. The reaction was caused by dried navy beans, which the manufacturer had added to the crust to increase the protein to meet nutritional standards. Although beans were listed on the ingredient label, nobody expected them to be used in this type of food product and therefore had not read the label prior to the student eating the pizza.
    • Develop cleaning procedures. Designate a person to be responsible for ensuring that lunch tables and surrounding areas are thoroughly cleaned before and after lunch. Use a designated sponge or cleaning cloth for the allergy-free tables/desks to avoid cross contact.
    • Develop emergency plans in the event of a shelter-in-place emergency that includes foods appropriate for these children.

Finally, it’s the school’s responsibility to serve the food; it is the parents’ responsibility to obtain the proper paperwork and to teach the school staff what their child can or cannot eat. Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Success is achieved by working in partnership with the child’s parents and the student who has food allergies.

For more information on keeping kids with food allergies safe at school, check out the Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found here:  http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/foodallergies/