My previous post Trust in the Lunchroom prompted some great questions about keeping your child with food allergies safe in the lunchroom. I empathized with all of your comments, and thought it might be helpful to share my personal experience in my son’s school. I agonized over the first day of First Grade from the time my son was diagnosed with his life threatening food allergies. I visualized “Boy in the Bubble” and total exclusion from his peanut butter eating peers. I recall just putting it out of my mind as I had bigger fish to fry; the preschool snack time.
But then that day came last August as my son started First Grade.¬† For years I assumed my son would never ever touch cafeteria food because of the cross contamination issue. Anyone familiar with the Sabrina Shannon story understands why we as parents are so fearful of this. But I had to find out once and for all if this was going to be the case his entire elementary, middle school and high school life.
Two weeks before school started I scheduled a meeting with the school nurse, principal, the school district’s director of food service and the head chef (I call her Chef Lady). I wanted to understand the school’s protocol for handling food service for those with food allergies as well as their emergency action plan in the event of an allergic reaction. To be clear, my school district is widely recognized as forward thinking about food allergies. The school nurse makes sure every food allergic child has an allergy action plan. But the lunchroom policy wasn’t as great. Epipens were not allowed in the lunchroom and it was previously understood that if a child experienced an allergic reaction then the lunchroom staff would promptly notify the school nurse down the hall. Again, anyone familiar with Sabrina Shannon knows this plan of action isn’t good enough and leaves room for error.
In accordance with my son’s 504 Plan, I required the school to designate ONE person to hold John’s Epipen IN the lunchroom. She is trained for what symptoms to look for, (physcial and verbal cues, ie. saying his throat is scratchy, mouth hurts, hives on or near face, excessive coughing, etc. ) and to take immediate action with the Epipen,¬†next call 911, then call the nurse to call me. Plain and simple. I questioned why the school never previously allowed these life saving devices in the lunchroom as it seemed like a no brainer to have one there (as opposed to a cabinet in the nurse’s office). I also made sure that John knows exactly who to go to if he feels he is having a reaction.
As with most school lunchrooms John sits at a peanut free table. I used to visualize him sitting alone at this table, maybe with one or two other kids. Sadly, there are lots of kids at this table, as evidenced by the huge upswing in peanut allergies the past 10 years alone. This only reinforces the belief that the incidence of food allergies is increasing.¬† John never feels alone¬†and has more than a few friends there.
Now for the tough part; ordering cafeteria food. As I said before I never thought this would be an option due to the severity of John’s multiple allergies. I flat out said no way, no how is he ever going to order food. Then John told me how much he really really really wished he could order a couple of his favorite foods. Turkey and soy nut butter sandwiches every day does get a little monotonous, after all. I had to think long and hard about this and wasn’t sure I could ever comfortably say yes. But out of respect for him I had to find out for sure (it also has a little to do with the former reporter in me, I can never let something go unless I find out myself).
During the August meeting with the school we discussed the menu at length. I determined which foods I though might be safe (like baked chicken breast on whole wheat, plain pasta or sloppy joes) and asked for an extensive ingredient list of each. Then I requested the phone numbers and contacts of the food vendors who supplied the foods so they could release an allergen statement and listing of ingredients. I also had a long discussion with the director and Chef Lady about cross contamination issues and how to safely prepare a tray of food for John that wouldn’t in any way get in contact with other potential allergens. In addition,¬† the one or two times a month John orders lunch I physically go to the school cafeteria that morning, recheck the ingredient labels and reinforce the food preparation techniques that will need to be used that day to avoid cross contamination (ie, no buttering of pasta, no sharing of food utensils, etc.) Finally, John only goes to the kitchen for his “special tray” to ensure that he is indeed getting the “allergen free” lunch.
Even with all these extra steps I still worry, and probably always will. But it is important to teach John that it’s OK to eat out, with the appropriate precautions taken. There will be a day he won’t be sitting at my dining room table, and the sooner he learns how to advocate for himself the better. But believe me, I will be watching him like a hawk until that day comes.