Tips For Talking to School Officials

in Help & Advice
Published: July 2, 2010

Food, the very sustenance of life, is present as we celebrate both life and death, mark rites of passage, and proudly offer others a glimpse into our unique cultures with special dishes. But our relationship with food – when, where, how, and even why we eat – has changed significantly over the years.

There is an expression that: “There are those who eat to live, and others who live to eat.” With the obesity rate soaring, clearly, North Americans fall into this latter group. We over-consume. Microwave technology and the accessibility of prepared foods have made it so easy to eat on the run, any time, anywhere.

Years ago, you did not see people wolfing down full meals in public transit; nor was there an excessive amount of food in schools. Treats, once an occasional indulgence, have become the norm with sweet drinks and snacks doled out after children’s sports activities (in my day, it was water and orange slices), and people noshing in their beds mindlessly while watching TV.

This trend to over-consuming has created challenges for families with food-allergic children, as well as for the school administrators responsible for reducing those kids’ risks of allergen exposure. Food has become central to school holiday celebrations, fundraisers and teacher rewards. Many people feel that things have gone too far, especially with the practice of parents sending in treats to celebrate their children’s birthdays in classrooms.

Pamela Lee, mother of a food-allergic son and a Vancouver educational assistant, points out on’s Forum that “schools should be a place of learning,” and that “birthday parties should be provided by parents, on the parents’ time, not the teachers’ time.”

While many schools are making greater efforts to encourage healthy eating, it will be a while before sweeping changes are made which result in less food in schools. In the meantime, parents should continue to advocate for safe environments, and do it in a positive way. Some advice from the trenches:

Ask for best efforts, not guarantees.
Perfection, such as asking for a guarantee, is not a goal anyone can achieve. Many parents demand that schools be “peanut-free” or “nut-free”. While a large number of elementary schools have restrictions on these foods, it’s not possible to “guarantee” that everything will be “free from” peanuts, nuts or other allergenic foods. The majority of other parents will make efforts to comply with food policies, especially if they are seen to be reasonable, but mistakes will happen from time to time.

Practice what you want to say.
Write down the three key points you want to discuss with the principal. This will keep you focused on what is most important. Role play with a friend who does not have a food-allergic child. Be sure this is someone who will give you an honest opinion and provide the perspective of those who do not live with food allergies. Your choice of words, tone and body language will all impact the way you come across to school officials.

Treat ignorance as an opportunity to educate.
Before a school meeting, offer to provide information about food allergies, such as DVDs or brief printed materials for review. When background is provided ahead of time about the potential severity of allergic reactions, this will allow more time for discussion. Remember that there will always be naysayers who make insensitive comments. You can’t change them, but you can change the way you react to them. Don’t let them get you down. As others come on board, the negative voices will be drowned out.

Create bridges, not walls.
When things are not going well, ask yourself: Could my own behaviour be part of the problem? A mother I knew had her husband speak with the principal, recognizing that her behaviour had created a barrier. He was able to break down the wall. Later, the mother was able to build a bridge through changing the way she interacted with the principal – who started consulting her on the school’s anaphylaxis policy.

Similarly, at parent meetings, some have found it helpful to have a friend, whose child doesn’t have food allergies, present other reasons for reducing the amount of classroom food, from the mess to other health concerns such as obesity or diabetes.

The long and short is that the parents who can be brutally honest with themselves are the most likely to succeed at gaining protection for allergic students. They’ll also help to raise awareness of just how food-centred our schools have become.

While we’re being frank – we have all tripped in our desire to protect our loved ones; our anxiety can sometimes make us act inappropriately. What we need to do is learn from our mistakes. We should also celebrate the small wins, and take every occasion to say “thanks” where appropriate.

Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada,