Navigating Food Allergies at School

Navigating Food Allergies at School

Publish Date May 15, 2023 4 Minute Read
Author Allison Yoder, MA, RDN, LD

Today, 1 in 13 children in the United States are affected by food allergies. When looking at school statistics, that equates to roughly 2 students per classroom. With children spending the majority of their time at school, it’s important that parents, classmates and school staff are working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students who have food allergies.

What is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy is an adverse immune system response that occurs after an exposure to certain foods. There are 9 major food allergens that account for many serious allergic reactions, including but not limited to:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Sesame
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts

Food allergies can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild irritation to a life-threatening condition known as anaphylaxis. Allergies can change over time and may affect different parts of the body, including the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, cardiovascular system and nervous system. While there’s no cure for food allergies, avoiding common allergens can prevent allergic reactions.

Managing Food Allergies at School

1 in 5 students with food allergies will have a reaction while at school, and 25% of severe allergic reactions that happen at school will occur in students with no previous history of having a known food allergy. Since it’s not always possible to avoid certain foods at school or at school events, administration and school staff should develop plans for preventing allergic reactions and responding to any food allergy emergencies, noting that the lunchroom, classroom parties and trips may pose an extra challenge. To help ensure the best outcomes, parents and classmates should be informed of these plans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 5 priority areas that should be addressed in each school’s food allergy management prevention plan:

1. Ensure the daily management of food allergies in individual children.
Parents and caregivers must play a key role in day-to-day prevention of allergic reactions, working collaboratively with school staff on allergy management. That way, staff can be prepared to manage any symptoms that may occur, and the child can safely participate in classroom and school activities or events.

2. Prepare for food allergy emergencies.
School administration is responsible for setting up easy communication systems for staff to respond to food allergy reactions and emergencies. Early and quick recognition and treatment is crucial in preventing serious health problems.

3. Provide professional development with food allergy education for staff members.
School faculty should be trained to manage food allergies at school. They should also be able to provide direction for preventing and responding to a food allergy emergency.

4. Educate children and family members about food allergies.
All children should learn about food allergies to increase awareness and understanding, and to build support and acceptance for students with food allergies. Family members of classmates should also be informed of the school’s policies and practices.

5. Create and maintain a healthy and safe educational environment.
School administration, staff, teachers and classmates all have a shared responsibility to promote a safe and supportive environment for students with food allergies. This includes proper execution of food-handling policies and procedures, as well as careful planning of field trips and special classroom occasions.

If your school currently doesn’t have a plan in place, there are resources available to help guide the process. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs. This resource includes information about food allergy management in schools, including additional details about the 5 priority areas.

Creating an Allergy-friendly Classroom Party

Special occasions in the classroom are a treat and should be inclusive of all students. Many schools are beginning to provide safe snack lists that contain allergy-friendly food and beverage options. Additionally, more brands are demonstrating their commitment to this effort by offering options free from major allergens.

Providing non-food options is another way to ensure fun for all. Party favors like glow sticks, silly stick-on mustaches or even photo props are all great options to ensure that everyone has a way to participate.

Looking for new allergy-friendly foods and meal ideas? Our team of registered dietitians can help you develop a personalized plan. Schedule a Telenutrition appointment to learn more.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.