Somebody shared the article above with me last week. I normally don't have the desire, time or energy to jump into the negatively fueled discussions about food allergies in schools anymore. However, after reading this article I had to write a rebuttal to point out a few things I think the author might be missing.
Let me start this article by saying that I have always been clear on the fact that I don't send my kids to school to have parties. Food allergy issues aside, it has always bothered me that part of choosing public school for my children has meant allowing more occasions than I can shake a stick at for eating junk and party food.
Even before food allergy issues reared their ugly multi -heads in our family, I didn't agree with the excessive amounts of unhealthy treats that my kids were bombarded with at school on a weekly (or more!) basis. Birthday parties for a classroom of 25-30 students meant at least one birthday celebration a week. Then there were holidays. Then rewards of food treats for reaching a classroom goal - usually a pizza or ice cream Friday. Don't forget the PTA ice cream social or the end of the year hot dog and ice cream picnic on one specific day, as well as all of the individual class room parties for the same occasion. If I want my kids to feel like they are doing something special for me on Mother's day, there's Muffins for Moms. If my husband wants the same on Father's Day, there's Donuts for Dads. There are also the activities like Walk to School Day (to promote exercise and getting outside) that ends, ironically, with a feeding frenzy at a Krispy Kreme laden table. The foods at all of these celebrations are always convenient, easy and terrible for your health. Krispy Kremes, store bought cupcakes and candy and pizza seem be the party foods of choice at our school.
The Kindergarten teacher likes to bake a gingerbread cake in the classroom and bring in cookies shaped like the individual United States when she teaches the kids geography. The remedial reading teacher has a jar of candy to offer as rewards for a job well done. So do a few of the other lower grade teachers. The Safety and Service Squad students get hot cocoa and pizza every so often to reward them for their hard work. Then there's the cupcake sale during class hours so students can go buy and eat cupcakes as a snack during class time (for a good cause!) and we have fundraising Bagel Day once a month for the same reason. We also have a Field Day full of outside sports and athletic activities that ends in popsicles and ice cream bars for the students. I could go on and on.
We probably could have gotten away without feeding our kids dinner for most of the school year with all of the ruined appetites and extra calories they were getting at school.
Then our district consolidated and our classrooms bulged to the bursting point and teachers realized it was simply taking too much class time to celebrate birthdays with parties during class time. Thankfully, the most frequent excuse to help increase the rate of childhood obesity and potential for adulthood diabesity in our local students was banned. We now recognize birthdays with a special routine, privilege or non-food keepsake in the classrooms.
Fast forward to today, where we have since had five kids in seven years, six years ago. They're all in public school now. All five are intolerant or actually allergic to dairy and completely avoiding every trace of it and the three younger ones all have multiple severe to life-threatening food allergies. Not that you'll remember (because even I barely can) and not that it really matters (because the bottom line is it means they can't eat ANYthing unless it came from home) but their allergies are:
Our school eliminated the classroom birthday parties and restricted peanuts from the entire premises and tree nuts and peanuts from the class rooms, but the rest of the food- in- the -classrooms-occasions continue. I used to try and keep up by making my own safe and healthier version of the treats provided so my kids wouldn't feel left out. Besides feeling like a Grinch every time I had to explain why I would not be contributing to the class party fund (ummm, because I have to try and figure out how to make a "dirt cup with worms" without being able to use 'real' pudding, oreos or gummy worms and it's going to cost me quadruple the time and money it is going to cost any non-allergy mother to include their child in this holiday party?), I resented that my kids were being fed sugary crap in the middle of the day and taught to associate bad choices in food with happiness and fun at a holiday.
I also resented them coming home looking like my 4th grader did 2 weeks ago and having no idea whether it was from traces of foods in the classroom or industrial cleaners or what.
When foods can harm or even kill your children, you tend to lean toward de-emphasizing foods as a central part of bonding or socializing and focus more on the meaning of the occasion or the relationships of the people involved. At every turn, school and other well-meaning parents were undermining my attempts to keep my children safe and included. Not to mention that with five kids, it was almost impossible to keep up with the expense and effort of all of their classroom parties.
The parties aren't fun for food allergy kids. They are exclusionary, they are anxiety-inducing and for many, they cause uncomfortable reactions. The author of this article specifies that she wouldn't expect life-threatening allergy students to be exposed to their allergens, but anyone with lesser allergies should just learn to deal with it. Their parents should figure out what to do for them and her child should not be denied the right to their party because of non-life- threatening food allergy.
That goes for the little girl in my son's class with Celiac Disease who gets a stomach ache every Bagel Day and has to ask the teacher if her classmates can please wrap up their bagels. It goes for the little boy who is embarrassed about his lumpy, homemade dairy and soy free cupcake that would rather stuff it back into his lunchbox than be asked or teased about not getting one of the "normal" ones everyone else is eating. It goes for the diabetic kid and the vegan kid and the kosher kid and the GMO free, all organic kid and it goes for the ADD/ADHD kid who doesn't get to eat processed sugar or dyes.
In America today, every classroom is estimated to have at least 2 students with food allergies and 1 in 3 children headed for diabetes (http://www.worldhealth.net/news/one_in_three_us_children_born_in_2000_wi/) and 1 in 3 with obesity, but let's ignore all of them and their needs and what these foods are doing to them because "normal" kids have a right to their unhealthy foods wherever and whenever they want.
If I were having a conversation with the author, I'd love to ask where the sense of entitlement comes from that causes her to feel that every student in her child's classroom has to celebrate her child's birthday, anyway? Just as she asks how allergy parents dare to inconvenience her child's right to allergen-laden party food, I would like to ask how she has the audacity to take my child's educational time away to encourage poor eating habits in a nation plagued by an epidemic of obesity and increased potential for adulthood diabetes in our children, as well as Celiac Disease and food allergies?
Won't her child get a party at home? Won't that child have a chance to celebrate with friends over the weekend? How many times does her child have to eat junk food and serve it to other people's kids who may not even have been interested in attending her child's party, if not compelled to do so by being in the same classroom? If we allergy parents should keep our "preferences" to ourselves, shouldn't you, also? In fact, isn't the intrusion of your non-curriculum based party in a public school the only reason we have to speak up in the first place?
Here's an idea: you keep your parties out of our child's classroom and we'll keep our food allergy requirements out of your life.
My youngest son has skin allergies in addition to his anaphylactic ones. Holiday parties almost always result in him breaking out in hives, turning red and scratching incessantly. On their Dr.s advice, I finally stopped trying to provide their own foods so they could feel included and just started bringing them home every time there is a food-based event in their classroom. Before we started doing this, this is what my skin-allergy child looked like for most of his year in Kindergarten:
I know the author generously makes allowances for life-threatening allergies and concedes that classrooms should not have parties with foods that contain those allergens (and I do thank her on behalf of my child who has had several anaphylactic reactions), but this is what a child with skin allergies (i.e., open skin disorders, eczema, atopic dermatitis, etc...) might be like after a day of being exposed to and in constant contact with his allergens:
Foods need to be removed from classrooms. More and more schools are realizing it just isn't worth the risk anymore. Food allergies are already at epidemic proportions - and on the rise. Most serious reactions occur in previously undiagnosed children.
Eating in a lunchroom surrounded by their allergens is already the riskiest part of most food allergy students' days. However, a lunchroom gets the tables cleaned in between lunch sessions. A student is only sitting there for about 20 minutes at a time and it's usually a very large, airy room. When foods are brought into the much smaller and more contained classroom, the parties can be for 30 minutes - or they can be all day. Nobody has to clean every single desk when the party is over. Children aren't made to sit down in one place to eat, but can mill and wander around, spreading cross-contamination everywhere.
So, if a school keeps foods in the cafeteria only, an allergy child is at risk of direct exposure and cross-contamination for roughly 20 minutes a day. In a classroom party, that risk goes up to 7 hours a day. Add up all the occasions most schools have for bringing foods into the classrooms and multiply by that 7 hours and you might begin to understand why allergy parents would ask you not to bring in items containing their child's allergens.
Why couldn't we celebrate with non-food items like games and activities? Children could make memory books and sign them for each other. They could write warm fuzzies to each other about something they admire about each other. They could exchange themed pencils or Silly Bandz or the Crazy Loom bracelets all the kids are making today. I know I'd much rather chip in money to help pay for parties like this than for junk food. I know my children would cherish the keepsakes from these parties far more than the stomach aches and sugar jitters some of their classmates end up with.
The schools will save wear and tear on the carpeting in the long run, too.
I hope this helps to answer the entitled question of the article I am responding to. As far as we food allergy parents are concerned, your child can have all the birthday parties s/he wants. Just not where our children have to be unwilling victims made to feel like their health and safety come in second place to a party food.