March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
One in 13 children heading back to school suffers from potentially life-threatening food allergies. Depending on class size, that's about two kids per classroom, and 15 percent of them have experienced a reaction at school.
If it seems like life-threatening food allergies are more prevalent today than when you were a child, you're right. According to a 2013 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children with food allergies increased by approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.
Many children with food allergies bring lunch from home and some schools designate a "safe zone" where common allergens are not allowed. Yet, for many parents, it's little comfort. "Most food allergy reactions at school happen in classrooms, not cafeterias," says registered dietitian Lisa Musician, RD, LDN. "Why? Food-based class projects and food brought into class for celebrations. In fact, foods given to food-allergic children by friends — especially candy and desserts — pose the greatest risk for a food allergy reaction."
So, what's a parent to do? Here are five steps every parent of a student with food allergies must take.
Get to Know Your Child's Support Team
Introduce yourself and your child to the adults he or she sees every day — teachers, nurses, coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria staff and administrators. Clear up any misconceptions they may have about food allergies. Provide them with specific information about your child and how they can support him or her.
Make Sure Everyone Knows the Epinephrine Plan
"Studies suggest the two main issues schools need to address to help keep children safe are inadequate food allergy management plans and poor recognition and subsequent failure to treat allergic symptoms immediately with epinephrine," says Musician. Make sure your child's epinephrine and written plans — such as the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan and a 504 Plan — are up-to-date and on file. This means asking where your child's epinephrine auto-injectors are stored, who has access to them, how easily they can be accessed in case of an emergency and that they are stored properly.
Your child's room parent is likely responsible for organizing classroom parties and field trips that involve food. Maintain frequent contact with the room parent or, better yet, get involved. "Sign up to volunteer or chaperone for classroom events or field trips," says Musician. "If you are unable to attend, ask a trusted friend, neighbor or family member who is comfortable administering epinephrine."
Involve Your Child
Read books about food allergies with younger children. Help them practice with auto-injector trainers and make up fun hand-washing songs before and after meals. Teach older children to read food labels, avoid non-labeled (including homemade) foods, how to recognize symptoms of a reaction and to report bullying. And, Musician says there's a rule all children of any age with food allergies can follow: "No sharing food, no exceptions."
Make Safe Lunches and Snacks Fun
In families that have allergies, food can often become an object of fear. Instead, try to treat allergies as a chance to teach children about healthful and safe eating. Read allergy-friendly cookbooks and blogs for inspiration, and get your child involved in safe food planning, shopping and preparation.