Food Allergies: When Treats and Food Take Over the Classroom

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: July 2, 2010

Food in the ClassFrom the Allergic Living archives; this popular article was first published in the Canadian edition of the magazine in 2007.

THE PIZZA day. The monthly birthday cake. Treats from the teacher for a job well done. Those holiday celebrations. The dad with the MBA using spreadsheet skills to organize the preschool snack schedule.

The amount of food the average child comes in contact with at the modern school is several times what his 30- or 40-something parent encountered as a pupil. Today’s staples include the pizza-at-school fundraisers, rich and fatty cafeteria food, and school vending machines brimming with oversized beverages and chocolate bars.

Add to the mix the modern child’s obsession with computers, the hours of instant and text messaging time, and results are a shocker: kids across Canada and the United States are more overweight now than at any other time in history.

Between 1978 and 2004, government statistics show that the proportion of overweight Canadian kids aged 6 to 11 doubled to 26 per cent, while the rate of teenagers who were too heavy also doubled – to a whopping 29 per cent. The rate of obese teens tripled to 9 per cent.

Due to weight issues, the federal government stated that, for the first time, this generation of children might not live as long as their parents. In the United States, over the past three decades there has been a doubling of obesity rates for preschoolers and teens, and a tripling for the 6-to-11-year-old group.

“Kids are drinking more sugary drinks, and you have exercise being designed out of their lives,” says Dr. Brian McCrindle, a cardiologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, professor of pediatrics and author of Get a Healthy Weight for Your Child. “Because of safety concerns, they don’t play outside, and you see a proliferation of sedentary pursuits, video and computer.”

As children have grown ever heavier, the concurrent trend, of course, is the skyrocketing of food allergy. A study from Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine in New York, published in 2004, confirmed what allergists knew anecdotally; the incidence of food allergy in the U.S. had doubled, and those statistics are mirrored in Canada. Six to 8 per cent of Canadian school children now have food allergies, which can cause dangerous, even life-threatening reactions. Provinces and states are considering and, in a few cases, passing anaphylaxis-readiness laws in the schools.

But as those bring restrictions on what is appropriate for the lunchbox, simultaneously, the weight issue has grabbed the attention of educators and the media. The result: the pendulum is beginning to swing toward better nutrition in some schools. This means a new focus on fruits and vegetables, which happens to dovetail neatly with concerns about allergens in the class, since those foods are not the top allergenic sources, and they won’t lead to accidental exposures.

New Approach: No Food as Rewards
or for Celebrations

The Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory group based in Washington, produced a report in April, 2007 calling for a dramatic new approach to food in the classroom: no food as rewards; no food for celebrations. Then it ranked foods into tiers. Tier 1 is acceptable: fruits, vegetables, real juice, low-fat dairy, and nothing with trans fat.

These are the only snack foods to be allowed for elementary school children and fundraising efforts, while higher-fat and sugary Tier 2 food could be available for after-school activity for teens. No snack, though, should be more than 200 calories.

The Institute of Medicine report also took aim at food sold to raise funds for schools, recommending it be curtailed. At the same time, a new bill that would amend the Child Nutrition Act to eliminate junk food from U.S. schools is gaining support in Congress.

Bill Jeffrey, national coordinator of the Canadian wing of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, wrote a response to the Institute of Medicine’s report, calling for Canada’s federal government to take serious leadership on school nutrition. “We don’t have a good snapshot of food in the schools nationally,” he says. “There needs to be a national approach to improving it.”

Indeed, there is a provincial patchwork approach to both food allergy and nutrition in the schools. “Things are changing with regard to improved nutrition,” says Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary pediatrician. “But they are changing too slowly.”

One province showing leadership after a wake-up call is Nova Scotia. A 2003 study found more than 40 per cent of kids in Grade 5 to be overweight or obese, with poor kids more likely to be overweight, so the province decided that change had to come.

Banning Sport Drinks, Deep Fryers
and Super-Sized Portions

In 2006, it began phasing in (over three years) its Food and Nutrition Policy for Nova Scotia Public Schools. The policy states boldly that food must be for nourishment rather than revenue generation. It bans sports drinks and deep fryers from cafeterias, eliminates super-sized portions, and ranks foods (and when they’re allowed to be eaten) according to nutritional content.

Peter McLaughlin, spokesperson for the Department of Education, says schools expressed the greatest concerns with strict guidelines in the area of fundraising (no more cookie dough). To clarify, a comprehensive guide was created. “We were helped by the warnings that this would be the first generation not to outlive their parents,” he says. At the same time, Nova Scotia is updating its anaphylaxis guidelines and undertaking more emergency training.

In Ontario, the food-in-the-class debates have been focused on compliance with Sabrina’s Law, the groundbreaking anaphylaxis legislation. But nutrition is also building as an issue.

In late 2004, the Ministry of Education released guidelines for school boards that targeted the sale of chips and chocolate bars in elementary school vending machines. School boards were advised to restrict snacks to those that are nutritious, including fruit cups and some types of granola bars, crackers and cookies. Lower-fat milk, water and 100 per cent fruit juice were recommended as beverages, and the guidelines are part of a broader health framework.

Meantime, British Columbia has similarly begun moving toward healthier eating habits. It is working with the school boards with the goal of eliminating junk food in the vending machines and cafeterias, and has introduced a program called Healthy Schools.

But beyond provincial or statewide policies, changing the dynamic of food in the class also comes down to a single school’s own initiative. In the case of one Mississauga, Ontario school, the approach to reducing allergens in the junior kindergarten is steeped in nutritional advantage.

St. Basil Elementary School implemented a fruits and veggies-only snack regime for its junior kindergarten pupils two years ago. This came about following discussions with a parent whose child had had an anaphylactic reaction. To make the classroom safe for that pupil, his teacher suggested this nutritious (if more limiting) solution.

Clifford Read, the school’s principal, agreed. “This was as controversial as anything I’ve done in this school,” he recalls. “Parents were saying ‘what about cheese and crackers?’ They felt we were judging them.

Next: New snack plans cause controversy