How Food Allergies Can Make Entire Classrooms Healthier & Happier

Hannah is 5 years old.  She’s a joyful kid who likes school, especially playing at recess and special games. Today, Hannah notices that her best friend, Aria brought cupcakes for Aria’s birthday.  Hannah noticed that Aria loves the same kind of cupcakes as she does, which she knows is one more reason they are best friends.  She notices her favourite Disney character on top of each perfectly decorated light pink and blue cupcake topped with sprinkles. She’s looking forward to the creamy, sweet frosting.  She goes through her day excited for the special treat.  Only when the time comes, Hannah isn’t allowed to eat the cupcake.  Her teacher reminds her that because of her allergy, it’s not safe.  Hannah remembers her allergy and the reminder of her reality sinks in.  She doesn’t want her body to break out in itchy, ugly hives.  She doesn’t want to feel sick and throw up.  And she especially doesn’t want to faint or have a problem breathing so they have to use her EpiPen in front of everybody in her class.  So she sticks with the same, safe treat she gets every time, even though Aria’s special treat would have been the bright spot of her day.  She holds it in, but Hannah’s excitement for the treat turns into full-on sadness which spills out into tears of frustration as soon as she sees her mom in the school pick-up lane.  

Hannah’s story is not uncommon. The number of food allergic (FA) kids in Canada is estimated at over 403,000.  Kids with severe food allergies can't eat food brought from homes that have their allergen present because there may be an unseen amount of the allergen that has come into contact with the food.  Reactions can occur by eating unsafe food, but unsafe food residues around the classroom are also risky.  If these residues are touched by an FA kid and small amounts make their way into their eyes, nose or mouth, a life threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can occur.   Anaphylaxis is the worst, severe, whole body response to an allergen. Anaphylaxis can cause death, and it’s the main reason food allergic kids can’t eat the foods they are allergic to.  

So how can the struggles of food allergies be turned into positives for the WHOLE classroom?

Food Allergy at School Canada

So how can the struggles of food allergies be turned into positives for the WHOLE classroom? By focusing on non-food celebrations.  Here’s why this is good for our kids:

1. Sugar. There's  an alarming amount of sugar in the diets of North Americans, and the health and wellness of our kids are important.  Kids spend a good chunk of time in school.  Having several junk food celebrations (20-30/year for birthdays alone plus major holidays) is a lot of extra sugar. 

2.  Dietary restrictions. There are several other dietary restrictions that stop kids from eating food treats.  These include celiac disease, diabetes, food intolerances, and other special diets.  Similar to FA kids, kids with these restrictions feel left out when celebrations focus on food in the classroom.

3. Bad behaviour. Junk food treats increase hyperactivity and make it difficult for the teacher to keep kids on track. 

4. Messiness. Junk food treats are messy.  Does the teacher really want another task in their busy day?

5. Empathy.  By bringing non-food treats and talking about why it's important, children are learning to compromise and care about others.  Who doesn’t want to have caring and empathetic kids?

As horrible as anaphylaxis would be for the child experiencing it, anaphylaxis would be equally as horrible and traumatic for their classmates to witness and process.

6. Anaphylaxis.  A survey done in the 2014-2015 school year indicated that almost 47% of anaphylactic reactions that occur at school occur in the classroom.   As horrible as anaphylaxis would be for the child experiencing it, anaphylaxis would be equally as horrible and traumatic for their classmates to witness and process.  It would also cause a huge sense of guilt and remorse on the part of a teacher. 

7.  Exercise. According to Dr. John J. Ratey, MD, exercise "wakes up the brain".  It improves the ability to learn and helps students focus. Why not get kids to have a quick and fun physical "Brain Break" together instead of sharing junk food?

8. Convenience. No more late nights desperately trying to get 24 mini cupcakes baked and iced.  Need I say more? 

Its not about allergic kids

So how do we make positive change for all our kids when it comes to food in classrooms?

1. Talk to your teacher and principal.  They are in charge of how celebrations are handled in classrooms.  Let them know how you feel and give them reasons this issue is important. 

  • Focus on the positives for teachers specifically.   
  • Give them non-food celebration ideas: bookmarks, crafts, glow sticks, pencils, extra recess, favourite game time, glow stick party, blow bubbles outside, etc.  Click here for 50 non-food birthday celebration ideas.
  • Ask teachers to send an email to parents to ask them to skip the food treats. 
  • Make sure to discuss with your principal.  Once they are onboard, it can really help to move the theme forward.  

2. Be a leader.  Break the norm and bring in cool non-food treats or ask the teacher to do one of the items above, even just for your child.  Once the teacher and parents hear how fun it was from their kids (and easy for the parents and teacher too), they will be more likely to follow suit.  Make sure that whatever you do, you have cleared it with the teacher first.  You will get much better results if you work with the teacher, not against them.

3. Discuss this issue with parent groups within your school.  Showing other parents the reasons this is important may create a buzz and a desire to make the change.  Again, if the response isn’t what you were hoping for, keep mentioning it.  An idea this year might be a movement next year.

No more late nights desperately trying to get 24 mini cupcakes baked and iced.  Need I say more? 

Remember that change is hard, and things may not move quickly.  The important thing is to address with each teacher, each year, and keep it up.  If they don’t agree, try not to be discouraged or offended.  Just keep going. Your persistence will be rewarded.  Not only for kids like Hannah, but for the WHOLE classroom.

What about you?  What ideas do you have for non-food school celebrations & birthdays? Share in the comments below.

Corinna Meckelborg lives in Calgary, AB with her two daughters and wonderful husband of 16 years.  Although she lives close to the mountains, she doesn’t like skiing or snowboarding but does enjoy snowshoeing and playing driveway basketball with her family.  Food allergies have been a part of her life for over 10 years and she enjoys advocating for and teaching others to live full, enjoyable food allergic lives through her company, Friendly Pantry Consulting Inc.  Check out Friendly Pantry on Facebook & Instagram (@friendlypantry) and at www.friendlypantry.com.