How Food Allergies Affect Schools

More and more children are being diagnosed with food allergies. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that from 1997 to 2007, reported food allergies in children under age 18 increased 18 percent. Yet the NCHS’s parent organization, the Centers for Disease Control, can’t explain why. An NCHS report says “The mechanisms by which a person develops an allergy to specific foods are largely unknown.”

According to the CDC, about 4 percent to 6 percent of children in the U.S. have a food allergy. This means that in a class of 30 students, one or two students will be affected. Allergic reactions can be mild, but they can also produce anaphylaxis — which includes symptoms like shortness of breath, swelling, and vomiting. Epinephrine shots are used to treat anaphylaxis, which can be deadly.

Care of students reaches almost every area of a school, not only food service workers and school nurses. The CDC has issued guidance for administrators, nutritionists, teachers, and school transportation staff, all of whom must know what to do if a student has an allergic reaction.

Sherry Coleman Collins, writing for Today’s Dietician, noted that “Because they impact a major life activity (eating), severe food allergies are considered a disability covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and schools must be willing to make reasonable accommodations.” Parents need to supply documentation and medication, but schools must train staff and ensure the campus is safe. This includes provisions such as minimizing cross-contamination in kitchens.

An unexpected consequence of food allergies is that students with dietary limitations may be bullied. A good deterrent to this is educating all students about food allergies from an early age. One thing parents can do to ease students’ self-consciousness is to pack lunches. This relieves the student of the need to question cafeteria staff about the ingredients of meals.

Parents can rightly expect school staff to be their allies in ensuring student safety around potential allergens.

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Website Updated: June 2020

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