It’s back-to-school time, and while most parents work from a standard supply list, roughly two children in every classroom require additional steps to be safe and included as a result of food allergies. My son is one of them.
According to FARE, the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, food allergy affects up to 15 million Americans, including 1 in 13 children. I’m preparing to send my son to preschool. This will be our family’s first experience with food allergies in a real classroom setting. I’ve participated in organized “mommy and me” activities, but dropping him off at school and leaving him there for several hours scares me. It opens a whole new door of questions and concerns for me as a parent not even three years in to this food allergy journey.
After contemplating this crossroads, reading FARE news and other expert resources, as well as talking to other moms, I’ve come to two major realizations: There is a lot involved with preparing for school as a food allergy parent, and, whether I like it or not, I am now an advocate for food allergy awareness and education.
Back-to-School Checklist for Food Allergy Parents
While my daughter is entering her third and final year of preschool, my son’s experience is different. I’ll surely learn more along the way, but here is the ten-item food allergy back-to-school checklist I’m following to give my son a safe and happy start.
- Find the right school for your child, and understand their policies and procedures. We are fortunate to have multiple preschool programs in our area, so we shopped around and selected the one we have the most confidence in managing our son’s food allergies. We developed a comfort level with the school leadership and teachers after many meetings, tours and questions asked about everything from staff training and hand-washing practices (including the proper use of wipes rather than hand sanitizer) to requesting a letter from school leadership be sent to other parents outlining the food allergies and any accommodations necessary. We also plan to ease in to the experience with a half-day schedule two days per week. Regardless of choice, communication and coordination with school administrators, teachers and nurses is key.
- Fill out all the paperwork. Coordinate with your physician, allergist and school to complete the forms required for entrance, including a comprehensive food allergy management and prevention plan, which is typically either an Individualized Health Plan (IHP) or a 504 Plan. We completed medical history, enrollment and medication authorization forms in addition to the Emergency Care Plan, which outlines how caregivers should respond in an allergic emergency and provides contact information. Plan ahead as forms may require your doctor’s signatures. If your child is eating school meals, also prepare a special dietary meals accommodation form to ensure safe substitutions.
- Develop and review the emergency medical plan with the school. This includes school administration, nurses and teachers. If assistance is needed in daycare or preschool medical care plan development and training of school staff on treatment/medication administration, local resources may be available in your area. For instance, in Cuyahoga County Ohio, parents and childcare providers can call Starting Point or the Cuyahoga County Board of Health.
- Prepare medications. Visit your doctors for current prescriptions, fill them and ensure your epinephrine auto-injectors and other medications are labeled with your child’s name. We also made sure our medications will not expire during the school year, purchased an insulated carrying case for my son’s epinephrine and antihistamine medication, and inquired about how and where the medications will be stored at the school. If you plan to order a FRIO carrying case, for example, you may use the discount code NEOFAN for 10% off your purchase.
- Be clear on the school’s guidelines for outside the classroom, too. This includes how food allergies are managed in the lunchroom or cafeteria, on school buses and on field trips. Celebrations are another consideration. Suggest celebrating food-free, but have a list of safe treats to distribute to teachers or parents as needed, and keep some of your child’s favorites at-the-ready in your freezer, pantry or at the school for when those occasions arise.
- Think beyond food. Some crafts and lesson plans for math and science may include potential food allergens. Consult with teachers to ensure activities are safe for your child, and reference this list from KidsWithFoodAllergies.org.
- Label everything… maybe even your child. Our preschool requires name labels on all belongings, and we ordered additional customizable waterproof food allergy alert labels for his lunch bag, food storage containers, water bottle and backpack. If you order Mabel’s Labels, support Northeast Ohio Food Allergy Network with the discount code NEOFAN10. There are also food allergy and medical bracelets or tags your child can wear, like those by AllerMates.
- Train your child. As a former public relations professional, I’ve conducted many communications training sessions. If your child is old enough to communicate their food allergies, make sure they have “key messages” down pat, including when to say “no, thank you” and how to explain their specific food allergies, symptoms of any allergic reaction and response steps. My son is too young to be his own advocate or administer medication, but we are working to instill simple safety lessons, such as not sharing food or eating food items found on a table, floor, etc. I also want to create an open dialogue on friendships and bullying so my children feel comfortable raising any concerns to the appropriate adults.
- Pack your bags. We have a couple lunch bag options, not knowing which will work best for us. One unzips into its own placemat and is machine washable. The other can be wiped clean, just like my son’s backpack, which is stocked with wipes and a change of clothes. In addition to standard food storage containers, I may try a bento box style so my son’s food can be eaten directly from sections of a single container. I will find out what the school allows and also ask about the use of utensils from home versus the school.
- Plan a menu. Coordinate with the school to see what safe menu options may be offered, meet with the cafeteria staff where possible, and if you choose to pack your child’s food, prepare a menu of options for your ongoing reference.
We Can Help Educate Schools and Other Families
As we prepare ourselves as food allergy parents, we can share what we learn with others. I’ve found valuable educational tools and resources that can make school safe and inclusive for everyone. For instance, FARE offers free resources as well as merchandise and materials for purchase. With a $20 or $30 donation, FARE will send your preschool, elementary school, middle school or high school a packet of information posters, informative handouts and resources to the building of your choice.
If you know of a school in Northeast Ohio that could use training related to food allergy prevention and management, refer them to NEOFAN and Rainbow Babies & Children’s Food Allergy Community School Education and Training Program. This school outreach program involves a 60-minute expert presentation covering a range of important topics. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if your school is interested in participating.
Additional back to school food allergy resources include: