Food Allergies: When Treats and Food Take Over the Classroom

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: July 2, 2010
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“We really had to stick to our guns around fruits and vegetables,” he says. “We explained to them that we were looking for healthier snacks.”

St. Basil has gone even further with allergy protocols. In all grades, birthday parties now don’t include food but games. No food is allowed in the playgrounds, as it adds risk for food allergic children and attracts bees (another anaphylaxis risk).

The fruits and vegetables message has spread to École Saint-Clément in the Town of Mount Royal, located on the island of Montreal. Dr. Valérie Marchand has two daughters enrolled there, both of whom have multiple food allergies. The school is trying to improve nutrition and protect those with food allergies. Every Tuesday and Thursday, students must bring fruit and vegetable snacks only.

“It’s not as easy as buying a quick snack at the store, but it’s healthier, and better for children with allergies,” says Marchand, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Montreal’s Ste-Justine Hospital, who often sees infants with failure to thrive, sometimes due to food allergies.

But while anaphylaxis awareness in the schools has grown considerably, the pace of change on its nutrition counterpart is slower. And there’s a good reason: schools today have embraced foods, many of them unhealthy, for fundraising and as classroom rewards. Changing that dependence is a big undertaking.

Consider the experience of Kari Gregory. She spent 10 years as an Alberta junior high and high school teacher and found food a common incentive in the classroom. “I don’t like the whole rewards thing; students need to do their best work because it teaches them to be accountable,” says Gregory, who left teaching to care for four young daughters. (She now works as a personal trainer.)

When she taught, she’d bring in a big bag of fruit. “Often kids would ask me for a fruit. One might be hungry or another forgot his lunch.” She knows teachers, even excellent ones, who still give out surgary treats. “I think teachers are lost about what to give as rewards. It’s cheaper to buy a tub of $3 jelly beans, than other more nutritious snacks.”

Fundraisers are Still
Using Sugary Treats

Then there are the fundraisers at her daughters’ school: pizza days, taco days, and subway sandwich days, all to raise funds for the parents’ advisory council. More fundraising is a fact of life in many public schools. In Calgary, Roman Catholic Bishop Fred Henry banned the high-earning casinos, so the Catholic schools in that city have turned now to food as one of several fundraising tools. This is still common.

Kate Caldwell is a teacher in Cobourg, Ontario. She has qualms about certain fundraising practices, but takes a different view on food in the class: “I see school celebrations as a teaching moment.” She works in the same school as her daughter, who is food allergic and asthmatic. In a supervised setting with the practice of washing hands well-established, Caldwell says that food allergic children and their friends can learn how to manage food allergies.

Caldwell and her husband, also a teacher, share the concerns about junk food, though. “A local school is currently raising money for new playground equipment and the parent group has sold chocolates, milkshakes and suckers throughout the school year. I joked with my husband that by the time the money is raised, the children will all be overweight and really need the equipment.”

Caldwell believes there are higher expectations now than when she was a child for school trips, and playgrounds are more expensive to build because of enhanced safety standards.

Fundraising is ingrained as a means of providing for sports teams, music programs, field trips or sometimes even basic school costs, such as library books. Gregg Bereznick is a superintendent of education for the Waterloo Region District School Board in Ontario and has watched this evolve over 25 years in the school system.

“There is a growing interest in fundraising to enhance those extras in the elementary schools,” he says, and that often involves food products. But at the same time, schools are dealing with food allergies, diabetes and other health issues.

Principals Face Complex
Situations with Food

“For principals, the food landscape has never been more complex,” says Bereznick. He describes a duality – while there may be more food in the schools, there is also more focus on health. “I think the birthday cake in the classroom is a dying trend. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but the current group of parents is more interested in nutrition than ever before.”

In looking to the future, Anne Muñoz-Furlong, the founder and former CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, sees a natural evolution between the recognition of kids’ nutritional needs and awareness of food allergies in school.

“From an educator’s perspective, having everyone avoid sweet snacks and desserts, which often contain allergens such as milk, eggs or peanuts, will make it easier to keep the children with food allergies safe. However, this goes beyond food allergies; the children with other diseases, such as diabetes, will benefit as well.”

As the food allergic are all too aware, telling other parents what they can and can’t pack in their children’s lunches can be fraught with controversy. But the beauty of the nutritional approach is that it is for the benefit of everyone’s children, with food allergic kids also reaping the benefits of lessened exposures.

As Muñoz-Furlong notes, “fruits and vegetables are a better food choice for everyone.”

Change in that direction may be slow and uneven, but given the alarming statistics on children’s weight and allergies, in North America more provinces and states may soon feel the pressure to get in step with Nova Scotia’s lead.

And one day, in the not-so distant future, perhaps a child will ask: “Mom, did you really used to eat cake – at school?”

Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
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