June 19, 2010

The Blame Game

Posted in Food Allergy, Schools tagged , at 9:16 am by 1ElleofaWoman

One of the worst things about being the parent of a child with food allergies is that you have to watch your child feel left out.  In the beginning, Jess didn’t really notice she was getting something different.  But then she began to notice and it began bothering her.  At birthday parties, she looks longingly at cakes hoping to get a piece even though she could almost never have it.

So you try your best to do everything to keep your child included, which becomes a delicate balancing act.  How much should be done to accommodate my child? Some things are non-negotiable.  A classroom full of toddlers or young children making bird feeders with peanut butter presents a danger to a child with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts.  But what about classroom snacks? Should they be nut free? How should I go about keeping my daughter safe and not pissing off the rest of the world?

The first thing that I did was teach my daughter not to eat anything unless I approved it first. She has been doing so since she was two.

Each situation is different and entails a different response based on the danger presented, the ease of substitution and the age of my child. With the example of the peanut butter bird feeder often the choices are (1) do the craft and make the kid with the allergy sit in the office.  This has happened to many kids and that’s rather mean.   Or (2)  not do the project at all, and risk having parents (and yes, it is almost always the parents and not the kids) complain about depriving their child of an activity.  I always strive for the third option – the substitution.  I gave the teacher a recipe for a peanut/tree-nut free bird seeder when my daughter  was in third grade.

Rather than insist parents send in allergy-friendly snacks, I leave extra snacks in school for my daughter when there is a birthday; she brings the birthday snack home for me to approve.  For class parties, I am there checking the ingredients.  Sometimes I stay & help out; other times I pop in, look at the food, tell the teacher and my daughter what’s safe & then leave. Now that I am working during the day several days of the week, I have come to rely on the school nurse to contact me and discuss the food when I am not able to be at school. I’ve also needed to do the same with events when my daughter may be exposed with certain nonfood items, like makeup. Jessica’s school has a great PTO leaders who make sure I am aware whenever food is served at a school function.

I am also often the mom who bakes cupcakes.   Due to cross-contamination issues, she cannot eat anything anyone else bakes. Sometime I bake for the entire class.  Other times I bake only for Jessica.  Some teachers will only allow snacks that everyone can eat, which leaves the baking up to me and the other moms who deal with food allergies.  This can be a sore point for some moms who love to bake cupcakes.

With all the work I expend on making things safe for my daughter and fair for her classmates, it’s disconcerting that things still get blamed on the “allergy kids.”  “Why can’t I bake cupcakes?” they ask or “Why should my child be deprived of XXX? Can’t the parents just teach their kids to stay away from peanuts?”

It’s especially disconcerting because often it is has nothing to do with the food allergies.

This year I am class mom. The teacher asked me to get ice cream for the last day of school.  One mom emailed me because she felt the kids should have chips, popcorn and juice boxes in addition to the ice cream;  she mentioned the food allergies  and commented “but I am sure we can find products without peanuts or peanut oils in the ingredients” so the kids could have a “great party.”  To be fair, I am sure she was trying to be helpful, but it is sad that with anything involving food, the food allergy gets the “blame.”  The truth is the teacher didn’t want the kids to have so much junk food.

Kids with food allergies are also often “blamed” for New Jersey’s school nutrition policy, which, among other things, prohibits foods with “minimal nutritional value.”  I will admit the state’s nutrition policy has made my job a lot easier – for birthday celebrations, kids are getting more non-food items, packaged items that have ingredients, or candy that is given out just before they leave school to bring home.  This reduces the number of times my daughter feels left out.  But this law has nothing to do with food allergies and everything to do with curbing the obesity and diabetes epidemics among school children.  In fact nuts are specifically mentioned in the guidelines because they are exempt from rulings regarding fat content, which is a max of 8 grams per serving, and are considered acceptable snacks.  In other words, nuts are considered so nutritious that it is acceptable for them to have more fat than other snacks.

So if you are not an “allergy mom,” the next time you feel upset about your child missing out on something food related, ask yourself if your child really feels he is missing out.  And then think of how much children with food allergies and their parents have to face.

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