Stepping Up to the Plate

March 15, 2006 at 5:40 pm (Allergy News!, social issues)

Very informative and well-written article by Carole Moore of Connect For Kids.  You might recognize a familiar name or two.  😉

I HIGHLY encourge you to familiarize yourself with that website–it is simply a fantastic resource!

Stepping Up to the Plate: Helping Kids with Severe Food Allergies

Published: March 13, 2006

by: Carole Moore

California’s Rialto School District has a comprehensive food allergy policy.

When Sam Gilman was a toddler, he took a bite of a peanut butter-filled cookie and almost died. He’d never had peanut butter before and no one knew he had a life-threatening allergy. If not for the quick reaction of a babysitter who recognized his symptoms, Sam would not have reached his third birthday, much less his 13th.

Now the 7th-grader at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown Day School, Sam makes sure he carries an epinephrine auto-injector as routinely as other kids his age stuff their cell phones in their back pockets. Quick administration of the epinephrine can head off a severe reaction.

Sam is one of an estimated five percent of children and infants in the U.S. who live with food allergies. For many, exposure to even minute amounts of the triggering food can be fatal, if untreated. And that is why, to parents of children with severe food allergies, the normally benign rattle of plates and hum of conversation in the background of an ordinary school cafeteria can be a frightening sound.

Patchwork Policies

Many school districts and independent schools train their staffs to deal with food allergies. But not every district has been pro-active, and there is no generally accepted standard protocol for how to address the issue in settings such as schools, preschools and daycare centers.

That’s why Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) introduced HR 4063, a bill that’s now before the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Education and the Workforce Committee. Also known as the “Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act of 2005,” HR 4063 would direct the federal Department of Health and Human Services to develop a policy for schools on handling food allergies. Compliance by school districts would be voluntary.

Julie Edwards, Lowey’s spokesperson, says the proposed legislation fills a gap. “Unfortunately, while a lot of schools want to make it safer for these students, there’s not a lot of literature on how to do that,” Edwards says. It’s information both parents and schools not only need, but, says Edwards, “are hungry for.”

The bill is familiar ground for Lowey, who introduced the “Food Allergen Labeling and Protection Act of 2004.” That act, which requires manufacturers to clearly label ingredients that are major sources of food allergens, took effect on Jan. 1st of this year.

Meanwhile, school systems like the Rialto Unified School District (RUSD) in California have implemented plans of their own.

RSUD spokesperson Syeda Jafri says besides the usual precautions, their schools use a computerized system to create special, allergen-free menus for students who need them. When a child requires additional help in choosing safe meals, a nurse or health aide offers individual assistance. The RUSD also monitors both nurses and staff to keep them up-to-date on their students’ health needs.

Not Just Peanuts

Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) says a quarter of the kids who have food allergies experience their first reactions on school grounds. Reactions can include hives, itching and swelling of the airways so severe that the child can’t breathe.

Peanut allergies, while perhaps the best-known, are not unique in their ability to threaten a child’s life. For some kids, milk, wheat, tree-nuts, shellfish, soy and other foods can also provoke fatal reactions.

“If a school doesn’t already have a student with food allergies, they soon will,” Munoz-Furlong says. “Much like a fire drill, every school should have a plan in place for handling an emergency.” An estimated 2 million U.S. children of school age are afflicted with food allergies.

“A survey of school nurses showed that 94 percent…have a least one food allergic student in their school, one-third of them reported a mean of 10 food-allergic students,” says Munoz-Furlong. But the study’s real eye-opener is that participating nurses also labeled food allergies as “extremely burdensome” and said they have little or no information for developing a school-wide management plan. FAAN carried out the telephone survey in 2003, with funding from the Bunning Food Allergy Foundation.

“With the current nurse shortage in the U.S., many schools share a nurse with other schools, making it even more important to provide as much information and guidance to school nurses and school staff as possible,” Munoz-Furlong says.

Incidents where teachers and school staff were uncomfortable administering epinephrine are not common, but they have happened. Munoz-Furlong says it’s vital they know how to properly administer the life-saving drug. She says schools need to develop food allergy management plans and points to HR 4063 as a good way for schools to start.

Currently, every school is “reinventing the wheel”, she says. “By providing a framework with key elements that should be included in a plan, HR 4063 will help set a standard for care.”

Sam Gilman

The Kids’ Menu

At Sam Gilman’s private school, Sam is not the only one who knows how to use his auto-injector – the staff does, too. His school has also taken additional measures to insure he and other students with peanut allergies stay safe. It starts in the lunch room.

“We have a peanut table,” Sam explains. Although the school could simply ban foods with peanut content, the articulate middle-schooler says he doesn’t want to deprive his classmates of their peanut butter sandwiches. “Kids with allergies will have to learn to deal with it later in life,” he says.

Kids with lunch items containing peanuts or peanut by-products eat at the special table. Sam says those who sit there don’t seem to mind, and believes the school’s done a great job educating students and staff about food allergies—even staging assemblies to explain how Sam and other allergic kids can react to the slightest contact with an allergen.

Out to Lunch

Not every school has adopted such an enlightened approach. Leslea Harmon, whose 4 ½ year-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergies when he was 13 months old, has turned a crusade for her son’s health into her life’s passion. Harmon, whose family of five calls Albany, Ind., home, hosts a podcast, “Allergy News—All the News that Itches.” She also blogs on the subject, ( and operates Allergy Ware, an online company catering to those with allergies.

Sam Harmon and a sibling attended a preschool that his mother characterizes as “giving lip service to our allergy action plan, but they were horrible about the follow-through.”

Leslea Harmon says the pre-school wasn’t always successful at keeping Sam isolated from peanut products. Even though he enjoyed the school, his parents pulled him out. “It’s not worth risking his life so that he can color a few pictures,” Leslea Harmon says.

She believes HR 4063 could be an important tool in making schools safe for both her child and others. “It is one of those ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ type situations. Any school setting that is not safe for every child is not a proper learning environment for any child,” she says.

Fellow activist and FAAN board member Andy Gilman, father of Sam the 7th grader, says passage of HR 4063 would be a win-win for states with school systems that implement it. “There’s no money that schools have to spend—that’s good for tight budgets,” Andy Gilman says. He adds that parents of children with severe food allergies have few choices.

“The only treatment for food allergies is avoidance and that goes hand-in-hand with awareness,” he says.

Homework for Parents

Steve Taylor, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, says parents should do their homework before sending a child with severe food allergies to school.

“You want to find out what level of experience the school has,” he says. “You have discussions [with school personnel] ahead of time. If an issue has to be resolved, you don’t want the debate to take place when the kid is on the classroom floor.”

Taylor applauds Harmon’s and Gilman’s efforts and cautions that lunchrooms aren’t the only source of potential problems at school. Schools should eliminate classroom projects that involve peanut products (like the familiar preschool standby of making bird feeders out of pine cones rolled in peanut butter and then in birdseed). Other possible food time bombs also originate from not-so-obvious sources. One example Taylor gives is the child who died after eating candy left around following a band fundraiser.

And that’s one of the things he likes about HR 4063. The bill, which has attracted broad bipartisan support and a long list of co-sponsors, would compel the HHS to draw a comprehensive policy clearly outlining the steps needed to make a school safe for kids with food allergies, covering everything from extracurricular activities to staff training.

“There is a great deal of bipartisan support. We have 66 co-sponsors and the Congresswoman is pushing hard for its passage,” says Edwards from Lowey’s office. When is another question. The wheels of Congress turn very slow. In the meantime, alert and proactive parents remain their child’s best, first, and in some cases, only line of defense.


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