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7 Ways to Help Manage Your Child's Food Allergy at School

By Amy Zimmer | November 10, 2014 7:24am
 P.S. 150 parent Toi Devito and her son Jack Tracy stand in front of the TriBeCa school. Jack is severely allergic to peanuts, and P.S. 150 is now a nut-free school in response to his allergy and that of a few other kids there.
P.S. 150 parent Toi Devito and her son Jack Tracy stand in front of the TriBeCa school. Jack is severely allergic to peanuts, and P.S. 150 is now a nut-free school in response to his allergy and that of a few other kids there.
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DNAinfo/Irene Plagianos

TRIBECA — Food allergies are on the rise among New York City kids — but the Department of Education has no formal policy on how schools should handle the issue.

That means the onus is on parents to create a safe school environment for their children, whether by bringing in their own allergen-free snacks for birthday parties or asking schools to serve cheese sandwiches instead of peanut butter and jelly.

"Don't allow your child to feel alone in his or her struggle," said Toi Devito, a TriBeCa mother of a 9-year-old with severe peanut allergies. "You have to be present and persistent in advocating for the safety of your child. Education is paramount and you must preach it to anyone who will listen."

Devito's son Jack Tracy is one of more than 6,000 public school students who currently carry EpiPens, or injectable medicine that keeps people with allergies from going into anaphylactic shock, in New York City.

That's up from fewer than 1,000 a decade ago, according to the Department of Education. 

Jack was accidentally exposed to peanuts when he was in second grade at TriBeCa's P.S. 150 and had to be hospitalized. He has 10 minutes within touching a peanut before he could go into anaphylactic shock, his mom said.

After the incident and Devito's advocacy, P.S. 150 banned all nuts and nut butters from being brought into the school. It is one of just two public schools in the city, along P.S. 33 in Chelsea, that DNAinfo New York found with such policies. Several private schools also use the policy, including Gramercy's Friends Seminary and Riverdale's Horace Mann.

According to the Department of Education, it's up to individual principals to decide whether to restrict nuts or other potential allergens in their schools. But officials say it's up to parents to reach out to administrators and nurses to develop a plan for accommodating their child's allergy.

Devito was glad P.S. 150 worked with her to help keep Jack safe, but now she's concerned about finding a supportive middle school for him next fall, especially since most schools are larger than P.S. 150 and may not be as receptive to going nut-free.

"One has to be vigilant," Devito said.

Here are tips for families on how you can manage children's food allergies at school:

1. Find out what food allergy-related policies are in place at your child's school.

As food allergies are on the rise, many schools may already have "allergy aware" policies.

The Upper East Side's P.S. 6, for instance, sends a letter home to families letting them know if a student in their child's class had nut allergies and asking them to explain to their child that they can't share food at lunch because of the "multitude of food allergies children may have."

Other schools, including Battery Park City's P.S. 276 and Staten Island Technical High School, designate separate lunch tables for children with severe allergies.

2. Enlist the support of other parents — especially those with kids without allergies.

Communicating with other families about your child's allergies is critical — and not always well received, several parents said.

"I am very much at the mercy of parents educating their kids," said Devito, who noted that parents at P.S. 150 often talk before there's a birthday party to ensure food will be nut-free.

It helps that the school is small, Devito added. P.S. 150 has one class per grade and no cafeteria, so children eat lunch in their classrooms, where they are carefully supervised by a teacher and lunch duty aide. 

"Schools can allocate a table tailored to kids that have certain allergies, but that doesn't mean other kids aren't going to have peanut butter in the cafeteria," Devito said. "You get families who say, 'Just because your kid has an allergy, why should mine have to suffer when the only thing he eats is peanut butter and jelly?' For me, 'You bringing nuts to school is like my child bringing a loaded gun to school.'"

Devito suggests hosting an "awareness" talk with a class or even paying for a health professional to speak to students about the seriousness of food allergies.

Even in the case where schools have nut-free policies, it's still no guarantee that there won't be any danger.

"A child might bring a Snickers into a classroom, and if everyone's guard is down, that might be counterproductive," explained Scott Sicherer, professor of pediatrics, allergy and immunology at Mount Sinai's Jaffe Food Allergy Institute.

3. Take the age of the child into consideration.

Parents and schools should understand that a food-allergic child's needs change at different ages, Sicherer said.

An approach to an allergic 4-year-old, who might have to be physically monitored so they don't accidentally grab someone else's food, might differ from that of a teen, who might need to be convinced not to take unnecessary risks with their meals, he explained.

4. Work with your school, not against it.

Rather than blaming a school for not doing something — such as sourcing cookies from a nut-free facility — help the school yourself, advised Roxanne Palin, an Upper East Side mom who has a 16-year-old and 13-year-old with life-threatening peanut allergies.

She, for instance, asked a Long Island camp that has allergen-free meals where they bought their bulk food and then contacted that company on behalf of her kids' private schools.

"Find the right person at your school to talk [to] and present solutions. Because these schools are all understaffed, whether private or public. They can't do the legwork," Palin said.

That might be more difficult in a public school with more stringent food-purchasing agreements, but the DOE advises parents to work with their school's administration regarding meal selection.

5. Make sure you have specific plan for your child in place at school.

Mike Spigler, vice president of education at advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education, or FARE, said having an individualized health plan for children on file at a school was an essential first step for those with allergies. The plan should outline recommended treatment in case of an allergic reaction and should also include emergency contacts.

If your child has a life-threatening allergy, it may be considered a disability under federal laws and you may be entitled to a federal 504 plan, which prevents your child from being discriminated against due to his or her allergy.

"It really helps with accommodations and also covers things like inclusion, so if you have kid with milk allergy and have a pizza party, that kid shouldn't have to sit in library," he said.

Parents suggested also educating your school's staff on what to do for your child in the case of emergency.

Susan Weissman, a Park Slope mom of a 12-year-old with multiple food allergies, often brings her son's old EpiPens to school to show his private school teachers how to use them.

6. Talk to your school about celebrations.

It's important that schools and parents discuss food for celebrations.

Though P.S. 33 bills itself as nut-free, parent coordinator Hanne Kjeldgaard said it's hard to stop parents from bringing in cupcakes from Billy's Bakery, which are not guaranteed to be allergen-free, so parents often provide separate goodies for their kids with allergies.

Spigler said it's best for schools to have non-food-related treats or foods that all students can enjoy.

7. Be aware of bullying.

Nearly a third of children with food allergies indicated that they were bullied or harassed because of it, according to a 2012 study by Mount Sinai researchers.

Many kids do not tell their families about the bullying, experts said. It's best for parents to be on the lookout for signs like depression and social anxiety.

"One time my daughter was at camp and a kid had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and wiped his fingers on her shirt," Palin said.

Julie Ader, whose 10-year-old is allergic to tree nuts and sesame seeds, experienced some hurtful comments from peers at her private school, like the girl who complained when the teacher took her candy with almonds.

"'It's because of you that I can't have my candy,'" the girl yelled at Ader's daughter, the mom recounted. "That made her cry. But you have to persevere. It's building resilience at a young age."