Dear Scratch or Sniff:
It’s happening again. With Thanksgiving just a short time away, I received a flyer announcing a class potluck dessert party. Immediately the panic spiral begins. There’s nothing on the flyer regarding tree nuts, my child’s primary allergen. I’m sure the other parents were thinking, “Oh how sweet! Let’s make brownies together. Yay!” I’m thinking, “What can I do to make sure he doesn’t have a reaction? How can I help him feel included when he can’t eat anything at the party?”
Now, I’m not an advocate of the nut-free school because I don’t think it prepares kids for the real world where nuts and other allergens exist. It’s important to me that he learns independence and how to self-advocate. Furthermore, what about the children with dairy, egg or shellfish allergies? A nut-free school wouldn’t help them. Also, my child’s allergist has assured me that level of vigilance is not necessary for him and would potentially stress and alienate him.
However, when you’re serving food to my child, I need to know what is in it. Potluck situations are incredibly stressful because I have no idea what is happening in someone’s home kitchen. Are they stirring the brownie mix with the peanut butter knife? Do the cookies include chocolate chips that were made on shared equipment with tree nuts?
How can I start a conversation with the teacher? Beyond that, how can I change the school’s outside food procedures to be more inclusive without losing the spirit of celebration?
Dear Panic Spiral:
Phew! You have packed your letter with a lot of tough stuff. Let’s try to break it down a little.
First, take a deep breath. This kind of situation is so easily fraught with emotion (on our end), because we want so desperately for our kiddos to not have to bring their own “safe foods” and to not have to worry if others are providing foods for them. So, keep in mind that this situation, while it feels huge, is not insurmountable.
Secondly, I agree with you about not requiring schools to be nut-free. But that’s for a future conversation.
My advice for this particular situation would be to approach the teacher with as much grace as possible. Remember, she (likely) has more than 20 individual students to educate each day, and sometimes–whether right or wrong–something like food allergies can be totally off her radar. I know that before food allergies entered my life, they would easily slip my mind. So, giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt will help you be in a better mindset as you approach her. And approach her you should.
Consider writing her a note (via email or hard copy) and asking if she would send a reminder to parents of the allergies in the classroom. It’s not too late to do so, most parents don’t prepare the snack they will send in with their kiddos for something like this until, at most, a couple of days in advance (I’ve been known to throw things together morning-of, for sanity sake I don’t recommend this course of action). You may want to even offer to write the reminder, or include some suggested wording in your note to the teacher to make it even easier on her.
The less knee-jerk-y your reaction in this situation, the better this is for your relationship with the teacher. Remember, you still have half of a school year that you need her firmly on your side. (It’s kind of the whole, “you get more flies with honey than vinegar” concept.)
After this situation has been addressed and you’ve been able to recover from it all, I highly recommend asking your child’s teacher for a one-to-one meeting to discuss what you really need her to know to make both you and your child feel comfortable in her classroom for the remainder of the year.
In addition, it sounds like your school or school district could use some food policy updates. Not just for kiddos with food allergies, but others that are impacted by food issues, like those with diabetes. It would be wise to research other school district food policies; gather your facts, info, and ammo and start building your case, brick by brick. Talk with the PTA, request a conversation with your principal, talk with your school nurse. If they don’t truly understand the impact of food allergies on the small but growing population in the school, they won’t be able to enforce change.
For quick reference, you can see my district’s food allergy policy here. Our school only has parties with food twice per year. The PTA purchases the treat, and the school nurse sends out a copy of the ingredient list with a permission slip to all families of allergic children. We usually have a minimum of two weeks’ notice for this, which gives us ample time to review, research, and either give permission, or decline it and send our kiddo to school with a safe alternative. This works out incredibly well for all involved.
As you know, you are your child’s best advocate. What you do today may not only change how things are for your child, but it could create change for hundreds, if not thousands, of children. How gratifying would that be?
Panic, let’s rename you to Warrior. Channel your anxiety, fear, and concern into a Warrior Mindset. Advocate and educate. Effect change. You can do it! Please check in with us and let us know how the food policy change comes along for you.
Best wishes to both you and your child as you navigate the class party with a food allergy. Have a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving!