• Melissa Genee, RD

Back to School with Food Allergies

Back to school time can be stressful for many families. From early morning wake up calls, supply shopping, packing lunches and new activities to remember, it’s no wonder many families are frazzled. For parents that have children with allergies, back to school can be that much more stressful and require extra planning and research.

Food allergies are on the rise, especially among children. According to Food Allergy Canada, more than 500,000 canadian children have food allergies and as there is no cure. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is strict avoidance of the offending food. Despite this, accidents can occur and research suggests that more than 15% of school-aged children have an allergic reaction while at school. Whether your child has a food allergen or not, read on to find out what you can do to help keep your children and their peers safe at school.

Food Allergies

A food allergy occurs when your immune system mistakenly treats something in a food as a foreigner. The body reacts by causing an allergic reaction. Typical symptoms of an allergic reaction include hives, swelling, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea, and most severe, anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition that occurs rapidly and commonly results in difficulty breathing and whole-body shock. Epinephrine is the first line of treatment for anaphylaxis. Epinephrine is most commonly available as an auto-injector also known as an EpiPen.

The top food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat. Besides fish and shellfish, the majority of these items are very common in school lunches and snacks. So what can you do to help your children with food allergies?

Educate Your Children

Food allergies can be scary and daunting for children, especially if they don’t understand what is happening and why certain foods makes them feel sick. Before starting school, ensure your child fully understands their food allergy:

  • Start simple by explaining that certain foods can make them sick by using terms such as “safe” and “unsafe”.

  • Show pictures of safe and unsafe foods when grocery shopping and in magazines.

  • Practice reading labels and ingredient lists together. You can even try sorting foods into safe and unsafe groups. Have your child reiterate which foods they can and cannot eat.

  • Most importantly, teach your children to only accept food from trusting adults like parents, teachers or grandparents - people that are aware of their allergies.

  • Remind your children to ask an adult for help if they feel funny or sick.

Understand School Policies

Many schools have policies and guidelines regarding food allergies and anaphylaxis. The Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) released a policy on anaphylaxis to encourage school boards to develop guidelines to protect children at risk for anaphylaxis. It is best to contact your child’s school if you are unaware of their food and allergy policies. Whether your child has allergies or not, it is best to follow these policies to protect the safety and well-being of all students.

If your child has allergies, it is best to meet with school staff to explain and ensure they understand your child’s needs and how to prevent allergic reactions. Discuss your child’s emergency anaphylaxis plan and ensure they understand the signs and symptoms of anaphylactic shock and how to respond. Ensure school staff are trained to use auto-injectors such as an EpiPen. Food Allergy Canada has plenty of resources, tools and online courses available to help educate school staff regarding your child’s food allergies.

Peanut Allergies

Peanuts are the most commonly restricted food items in schools due to the severity and vastness of peanut allergies. Peanuts, peanut butter and peanut butter cookies are the most obvious sources, but peanuts and peanut products can be hidden in many foods such as granola bars, sauces, gravies, salad dressings and baked goods. It is best to read the label on all foods sent with your child - never send food that contains restricted ingredients. Click here for peanut free snacks and school lunch ideas.

Tips to Keep your Child Safe at School

Follow these tips to help keep your child safe:

  • If your child has food allergies, it is best to avoid sharing food. This also goes for sharing utensils and straws.

  • Have your child wash their hands thoroughly before eating any food. This may prevent any contamination which could cause an allergic reaction.

  • Discuss your child’s food allergies with your child’s peers and their parents.

  • If your child requires an epinephrine auto-injector, ensure that they carry one with them at all times. Make sure your child’s teacher and other staff are aware of where to find it.

  • Read food labels on all foods sent with your child.

  • If bringing in food to share with other students in your child’s class, include a label or recipe.

  • Provide your child’s teacher with allergen friendly snacks for your child. This can be helpful in situations when food is shared that may not be safe for your child such as birthday parties and celebrations.

  • Speak with your child’s teacher and encourage them to use non-food rewards in the classroom to keep all children safe.

With these tips you can help keep your child and their peers safe at school. The key to successfully managing childhood allergies is to work cooperatively with your child’s school and keep the line of communication open all school year.

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