May is Food Allergy Awareness Month. Food allergies affect over 30 million Americans, including 1 in 13 children. That’s an average of 2 kids in every classroom who have a food allergy.
Whenever someone with a food allergy eats even a small amount of the food they’re allergic to, their body will develop an allergic reaction that could range from mild to severe – or even be life-threatening.
Food allergy awareness is vital for everyone, so people with food allergies feel safe and included. Today, we’re sharing tips and strategies to create inclusive environments for kids with food allergies.
What does inclusion mean? Why is it vital?
Inclusion means everyone is fully participating on a level playing field. When everyone is fully included, no one is left out or treated as “less than.” It’s important that every child is fully included in school and other social activities, as this promotes a sense of belonging, shows children that they are valued, and helps reduce bullying.
Children should never be left out of activities, made to feel different in a bad way, or excluded for any reason, including because of their food allergy.
Unfortunately, many children with food allergies are excluded or bullied. According to a recent study, 1 in 3 children with food allergies experience some form of bullying because of their allergy, whether that’s physical bullying, verbal bullying, or social exclusion.
And this doesn’t just happen because of peers’ behaviors.
Creating an inclusive environment
The school and social environments that adults set up often create exclusion instead of inclusion.
As they must avoid food that contains their allergen(s), children may feel left out of, or not fully included in, school and social activities where food is involved.
Yes, it’s extremely important to keep children with food allergies safe from allergen exposure, because allergic reactions are serious. But there are ways to keep a child safe without singling them out.
Kids with food allergies have a right to safe and inclusive environments where they can truly thrive. In fact, life-threatening food allergies are considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act because they can impair major life activities such as eating and breathing. That means exclusion of someone with food allergies is a type of disability discrimination.
To quote Angela Fuller, Founder and President of Food Allergy Families of the Triad: “Ensuring the inclusion of children with food allergies requires creating a safe environment. And that can’t be done without the help of others.
If you ask most parents if it would be OK to knowingly put a child in danger or exclude him or her based on a disability, they would say no. Of course, no one would find it acceptable to leave a child with a physical disability indoors while her peers went outside to play because no one wanted to ensure a safe path to the playground…
But for some reason, it is socially acceptable to expect food allergic kids to… be excluded, even though food allergy is recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s one thing to say all children should be included, but it’s another to make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary precautions to make it happen.”
Here’s how you can foster an inclusive environment for kids with food allergies, at school and during out-of-school activities.
Learn more about creating an inclusive environment for kids with food allergies in FARE’S “Exclude The Food, Not The Child" webinar:
Allergen-free lessons and activities
Even if a child isn’t directly eating food that contains their allergen, they could still develop an allergic reaction if they touch an unsafe food and that food makes contact with their mouth.
So, make sure all lessons and activities are safe for a child with food allergies to participate in – free from the child’s allergens. All kids should always be able to do the same activity together.
Kids with food allergies should never have to engage in an “alternate” activity – or be separated from the rest of the class – because an adult didn’t choose a main activity that’s safe for all the children in the group.
This doesn’t just mean keeping the class or activity space free from foods with the child’s allergen(s). It also means avoiding all lesson, craft and activity supplies with the allergen(s).
- For example, if a child is allergic to wheat, you’ll need to avoid using modeling clay with wheat inside.
- Or, if a child is allergic to milk, don’t plan an activity that involves used milk jugs, because they could still have traces of the milk allergen.
Making sure children wash their hands before entering the classroom or starting the activity is another way to help keep the space allergen-free.
Pro tip: If you’re the parent of a child with food allergies, you can require an allergen-free classroom as a safety accommodation within your child’s 504 plan.
Safe and inclusive trips
Children with food allergies shouldn’t feel like they must miss out on trips because of their allergen. All kids should be able to join in the fun!
Trip details should be discussed with food allergy parents in advance, so the parents can raise any safety and inclusion concerns.
Destinations where there’s clear exposure to a child’s allergen should always be avoided. For example, if a child has a milk allergy, skip the ice cream shop. Or, if a child has a wheat allergy, don’t go to a petting zoo where visitors feed the animals wheat-based treats. Pick a safer but equally fun option instead.
Also, children with food allergies should always have a safe option to eat that doesn’t single them out negatively, and supervising adults should be trained in how to respond to a food allergy emergency on a trip.
Inclusive mealtime tables
An allergen-free table might seem like the best way to keep children with food allergies safe, but there are other ways to arrange mealtime seating that are more inclusive, while still designed with safety in mind.
For example, you could have a child with food allergies sit in a designated seat, and require the kids seated next to them and directly across from them to have meals completely free of their allergen.
Or, you could give them an allergen-free desk positioned at the head of the table, or a corner seat – again, while requiring the closest kids to eat allergen-free meals.
Another option is to designate a “contains the allergen” table instead of allergen-free tables. That way, kids who have chosen to eat food with an allergen have to sit at that table, and the children who didn’t choose to have a food allergy don’t feel singled out for something they can’t control.
Of course, all of these options require diligent monitoring of the lunch environment and careful cleaning to keep the food allergic child(ren) safe.
Parents should have the choice of several inclusive options at the beginning of school or the activity, and be able to select any inclusive seating arrangement for their child.
If a food allergic child is participating in a classroom or smaller group activity, all food brought to the room/activity should be free from their allergen(s), if any food is needed at all.
There are plenty of ways to reward kids for good behavior or a stellar job that don’t involve food – so every child can enjoy them. Try some of these:
- “Passes” for a classroom privilege, such as a no homework pass or a special classroom job
- Extra recess, or time to play a fun game
- Prize boxes where children can pick a toy, puzzle, sticker, or other non-food reward
- Recognition on a classroom wall, in an announcement, or in a “brag note” home to the child’s family
Or, check out more non-food reward ideas from Action for Healthy Kids.
In school and at activities, many birthday, holiday, and reward-related celebrations tend to involve food.
Although many food allergy parents will prepare safe treats so their child won’t feel left out of a food-based party or reward, that still singles out the kid with food allergies because they can’t enjoy what everyone else is having. That child may feel discouraged because they aren’t fully included in the celebration.
A better, more inclusive option is to encourage and hold non-food celebrations, where all kids can enjoy the same activity or fun item together. For example, a student could bring in colorful stickers or fidget toys as birthday treats for their class. Or, you could hold a carnival with a variety of games, where small toys are the prizes.
Here are some other fun ideas:
- A glow party, as suggested by Allergy Superheroes: Hand out glow sticks, make sure there’s space to move, then turn off the lights and let kids have fun dancing
- A pajama campout: Have kids wear pajamas and bring their favorite stuffed animals, then let kids “camp out” on the floor, on top of blankets
- A craft time: This works well for holidays – say, a paper heart craft for Valentine’s Day, a ceramic pumpkin craft for Halloween, or a cotton ball snowman craft near the winter holidays
- “VIP of the Day:” With this non-food treat, the honoree gets to sit in a decorated seat, use special supplies, and wear a VIP lanyard or crown. This is great for birthdays!
Pro tip: One way to encourage your school or activity to get on board with non-food celebrations is to collaborate with a wellness committee, or anyone who wants to cut down on unhealthy foods that kids consume. After all, non-food celebrations both promote healthy eating and make sure everyone can join in the fun (allergy or no allergy). Eileen at Allergy Superheroes had success with this approach.
Finally, an easy step that anyone can take to foster inclusion of kids with food allergies is to show compassion.
Teachers and adults in charge should talk to food allergy families, so they’re aware of any situations that could potentially exclude a child, and discuss how to modify plans so everyone is included.
Meanwhile, parents and kids without food allergies should set a positive example, and be good friends to food allergy families!
Advocate for the needs of kids with food allergies, so food allergy families don’t have to fight alone.
Also, invite kids with food allergies and kids without food allergies to play or hang out together in a safe environment. Remember that this means:
- Double-checking food labels, and only offering safe, parent-approved food where a label is available
- Creating or choosing fun but lower-risk activity environments, where there’s little to no concern about allergen contact (food-free is best!)
- Knowing how to use an EpiPen in case of an emergency
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