Back to School with Food Allergies

What to know: Back to School with Food Allergies

Fall is on the horizon, and with it comes back-to-school season. Many American students have already returned to the classroom this month, while some are still revving up for a new year of learning. The new school year can prompt mixed feelings of anticipation and joy as students get ready to learn new things, be with friends again and begin new activities. However, starting school again can also be complicated by many factors including dealing with food allergies in both classrooms and cafeterias. While it may seem stressful, a bit of knowledge and preparation can help both parents and students feel confident to re-enter the school environment.

Special Considerations for the Fall 2021 School Year

The 2021-2022 school year presents a food allergy community of parents, students, and teachers with a unique set of challenges due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has several recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The CDC, known and respected across the globe for leading by science, provides several practical recommendations to protect the public from Coronavirus infections while prioritizing the need for in-person learning for school-aged children. The CDC goes further by encouraging vaccination for those aged 12 and up, advising for universal indoor masking in schools, physical distancing and practicing frequent handwashing.

Some of these recommendations may be a relief for an already close-knit community, as well as a growing community of food allergy-conscious parents and students. Public health practices like increased cleaning and handwashing can be proven effective in reducing the potential risk of children having an adverse reaction to an offending food or protein. Regardless, families may feel heightened stress and anxiety surrounding new protocols regarding food and cleanliness in classrooms. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) offers back to school resources for managing food allergy-related stress and being prepared for the unpredictable nature of returning to school with food allergies during a pandemic. They first recommend families rehearse an allergy action plan, meaning make sure that students understand when they are having a reaction and how to respond. This may look different in our present-day time of COVID-19, which makes practice scenarios vital to ensuring that students will be ready for an emergency. Gianine Rosenblum, PhD, a guest writer for FARE, also recommends that caregivers “ask what kids think; be prepared with facts to correct misunderstandings.” Knowledge is power, especially in this back-to-school season, and kids who know the facts will be prepared to handle a food allergy emergency should one occur.

Food Allergies are Fairly Common

As a recap, a food allergy is a condition where the body’s immune system responds to a substance in a food that it recognizes as foreign. It may cause a mild reaction such as rashes and hives, or a severe reaction such as anaphylaxis. Every one in thirteen American children has at least one food allergy, and according to FARE, “85 million Americans are impacted by food allergies and intolerances.” This means that almost every American classroom will have one or more students with a food allergy this upcoming school year. To help schools prepare, the CDC offers advice to manage and maintain safe environments for these students that include how to recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction, how to treat a severe reaction and how to prevent a reaction. Amidst a chaotic back-to-school season, the CDC’s Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs Guide can help parents and school leaders to prepare for food allergy-related situations; from knowing which baked goods contain the most known common allergens to knowing how to properly deliver emergency medicine, and when it is appropriate to do so.

Reducing Back to School Stress

Returning to school with food allergies can be stressful for both parents and students alike. FARE has developed a back-to-school checklist for parents to feel confident for children going into classrooms with new teachers. Some of the advice includes the following:

  • Know the signs and symptoms of your child’s allergic reaction.
  • Be sure your child can describe their allergic reaction accurately and know what he or she needs to do when encountering a food allergen.
  • Schedule a visit with your child’s pediatrician or allergist to be sure that prescriptions are up-to-date, and medications are the correct dosage and have not expired, or are near the expiration date.
  • Meet with appropriate school personnel including nurses, teachers, cafeteria managers and coaches to discuss an allergy emergency plan.
  • Know how and when food will be handled and eaten to be sure there is no cross-contact with food allergens.
  • Stay aware of signs of bullying or teasing that is related to a food allergy and teach children about how to respond.

Schooling the Food Allergy Game

Food allergies are one of the most common food-related medical conditions and can be one of the most severe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently recognizes 8 foods as major food allergens. They include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, treenuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean. On January 1, 2023, sesame will be added as the 9th major food allergen. It is however important to note that people can be allergic to any type of food. Planning school meals is just one of many back-to-school tasks and being aware of food allergies is one of the best tools that students, caregivers, and educators can have to create safe eating and learning environments. Using the tips above, along with FARE’s checklist, can help quell any fears and keep back-to-school a fun, joyful experience.

This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MPH, RD.