Who’s Watching Lunch?

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: July 2, 2010
106679800Allergic Living | Allergic Living

From the Allergic Living archives. First published in the magazine in 2009.

Alarm bells went off for Sarah Cameron* that day in 2008 when her 8-year-old daughter came home from school in a state of high agitation. There had been an incident during lunch break. The girl recounted how one of two Grade 6 monitors supervising the kids in her classroom had ordered her to sit at a desk out in the hallway, and to eat there by herself.

She was indignant and didn’t know what she’d done wrong. “They can’t treat me this way,” she said.

Her mother wasn’t pleased to hear of a student disciplining another student, but she had a more immediate concern. Her severely peanut-allergic daughter had been alone while eating.

“Where was your EpiPen?” Cameron asked. The reply: “In my backpack.” And where was that? “In the classroom.”

“If she’d had a reaction in the hall, no one would have been there to help her,” says Cameron. The previous fall, Cameron first learned that adults weren’t supervising the lunch breaks at the Ottawa public school. Instead, pairs of Grade 5 or 6 students oversaw the younger children as they ate at their desks. In case of an emergency, these monitors would have to run and seek out an adult.

Thousands of miles west, in Victoria, B.C., Caroline Posynick can relate. She became a convert to allergy advocacy in 2006 over the issue of student lunch-monitoring.

She had been blissfully unaware that, in a school that ran from kindergarten through Grade 7, lunch for younger grade children was supervised by kids from the eldest grade. She also didn’t realize that the teacher had decided to keep her son Griffin safe by isolating the 7-year-old at the crafts table.

On Valentine’s Day in 2006, “my son was sitting at this special table. A kid who was really, really active got up and put some peanut butter on his finger and then put it on Griffin’s arm,” Posynick says. “He wanted to see what would happen. This occurred with kids watching kids, so they couldn’t stop it.”

There was panic in the room, Griffin froze, and the monitors hustled him off to the teachers’ staff room to get his arm washed.

When Posynick and her husband got to the school they found Griffin with a huge hive on his arm. Benadryl was enough to handle the contact reaction. But the boy’s sense of upset did not go away nearly as quickly.

Incidents with lunch supervision are not hard to find among the parents of food-allergic children. They illustrate that, for all of the advances such as Sabrina’s Law in Ontario (an act to protect anaphylactic pupils) or B.C.’s ministerial framework on anaphylaxis, and for all the allergic community’s advocacy on risk reduction and readiness for emergencies, gaps remain in the protection of food-allergic children.

Within Canada’s public elementary schools, there’s a patchwork of student monitors and adult lunch supervisors, but even with the latter, the person in sight line of the child may not be trained on giving an epinephrine auto-injector. Who’s watching the kids depends on a school board’s policy and then, in turn, on how an individual principal handles (and applies budget to) lunch supervision at his or her school.

For instance, in Vancouver, the norm today is paid lunch assistants, but a ferry ride away in Victoria, students not old enough to babysit frequently patrol lunch in the class.

In 2005, Anaphylaxis Canada did a survey of its online registry about allergy policies in Canadian schools. Of the 678 parents who responded about their child’s public elementary school, 28 per cent said the school relied on student lunch monitors, 43 per cent said school staff supervised (sometimes in combination with students) and 33 per cent had paid lunch supervisors. At some schools, there were also a small percentage of parent volunteers assisting.

Most public elementary students (73 per cent) ate lunch in their class as schools often lacked the space for lunchrooms. “You do have to consider what the principals are dealing with,” notes Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada. “They’ve had cutbacks, the best that many principals can do is to have someone to wander the halls and poke their head in and monitor the kids.” That said, she adds: “too much of this is ad hoc, and schools need to think through this.”

U.S. ‘All Over the Map’

In the United States, student lunch volunteers are less the issue, but again – despite a growing number of anaphylaxis laws among the states, there are gaps. Lunch is usually eaten in a cafeteria or lunchroom, making it possible for fewer adult eyes to survey a larger group of kids.

Yet anaphylaxis prevention practices and auto-injector training can vary from district to district, and cafeteria to cafeteria.

Lunch supervision “is an all over the map situation in the U.S.,” says Deb Scherrer, vice president of education for the Virginia-based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. “Sometimes it’s a teacher, sometimes it’s a food service worker, sometimes it’s a parent – it may be paid staff or volunteer.”

*Name changed by request.