Food Allergies and our Schools

This is a touchy topic, and I’m sure many would say that I don’t have a right to wade into this particular minefield until Emby is born, but I’m going to anyways.

I consider myself a middle school teacher.  However, I did try out elementary education for a few years as I’m certified there and felt like it would be fun to be with the same group of kids all day every day.  I learned that it’s not for me for many reasons.  The many reasons I loathe teaching elementary school include…

  • Cutesy pagaentry–this includes recorder concerts (oh my bleeding ears), adorable puppet shows to teach us about poetry (cue my eye roll) and the concept of a “Fifth grade graduation” (I also think 8th grade graduation is stupid, for the record).  In middle school we kep that to maybe 3 or 4 assemblies a year instead of the 10-15 I bore witness to in elementary school instead of teaching curriculum.
  • Helicopter parents—emphasis on the “hell” syllable.  I had parents walk third and fifth grade students to class each day.  This includes the parent who objected to my teaching “King and King” in my 5th grade fairy tale unit (in a state with legalized gay marriage and a district that emphasizes “tolerance” and “acceptance” in the curriculum).  I had parents who thought it was their right to email me for close to daily progress reports, or who thought I should have to email them each night with the homework (no, you have a fifth grader and they need to learn to be responsible).  In middle school we were able to tell a parent they were being unreasonable, if that was the case–but not in elementary school.
  • “Leveled” books–Literacy coaches who told me that I should actually discourage a fifth grader from reading “Harry Potter” because it was “too tough” according to his reading assessment.  Excuse me, but the day I discourage any kid from reading ANY book is the day I’m cremated.  Sure, most second graders aren’t ready for Tolkien, but I found that kids who are motivated to read will slog through any piece of literature they really want to read.  This includes me in the sixth grade reading “Gone with the Wind.”  It matters more to help a student find books they love and are interested in reading than checking to see if it’s an “appropriate” book on some list based off random criteria.  The only thing I ever had to check at the middle school level was for language and adult content.
  • Seating in groups–I loathe grouped tables.  I am, as I’ve stated before, fairly old school in some of my notions, and this includes rows.  It’s not that group work should never happen, it’s that it’s not all that should happen. In the middle schools, we were allowed to decide on a day to day basis.
  • Food banning–and here is where we get to the topic of the day.

Banning foods, specifically peanut butter, is very much an elementary and nursery school phenomenon.  I have been able to find very few middle schools and no public high schools that ban peanut butter.

I have compassion for parents who have children with food allergies.  What I don’t have compassion for is that these parents, who represent 2-4% of all children are trying to impose restrictions on the other 95% or greater percentage of the population.  Yes, it’s scary to think that a neighbor’s pb&j might hurt your child, but why can’t you teach your child to have agency for themselves?  I have met five year olds who could remember to ask “does that have nuts?” before accepting strange food, or who always said “no, thank you” when strange food was offered to them.

Having taught in “poor” districts as well as wealthy ones, I also am beginning to view this as a class issue.  WIC, the welfare program that helps poor women and children as well as food stamps are both strong proponents of peanut butter.  It’s a low cost, high protein, high satiety food.  For poor families, peanut butter is often the only choice for lunch food.  Sure there’s school lunch, if the family is willing to let the kids get free lunch (reduced is often still too expensive) but then you have to assume the child in question is willing to eat it.  Banning peanut butter is going to affect poor children significantly more than wealthier ones whose parents can afford soy butter or healthier choices.

I have met a lot of mothers who don’t work once their kids are in full day school.  These parents are often the ones leading the crusade to ban this or to do that.  It’s not that I think women should have to work-the 70’s were about choice, after all.  I’m choosing to stay home for the next bit of time, myself.  But it does seem to me that when parents have nothing better to do than to focus on their kids instead of on themselves, their own development and their own fulfillment that things like food allergies get blown so far out of proportion because they have NOTHING else to focus on. Again, this looks more like a class issue to me.  Poor moms don’t have time to get involved in this nonsense because they’re too busy working.  It’s the wealthy moms who have the time and the lack of things besides being a mom that can waste hours and hours in conference with teachers and administrators.  These moms are the backbone of the schools and we do appreciate them, but they sometimes get a little power mad and begin to obsess over minutae.

I can, perhaps, see the value in banning certain foods at the nursery school level.  Those are children a bit too young to always be smart about what they’re supposed to be eating or not eating.  Food allergies often disappear by age 5, if they’re going to, and nursery school kids may not need to learn the same lessons that Kidnergarten kids and older will.  I think it’s worthwhile to have discussions around food allergies in elementary school and to even practice saying “no thank you” or whatever scripts are appropriate.  But outright banning is going a bit too far.  There are kids allergic to dairy, and they’re not banning milk.

If Emby has a peanut allergy, I will be devastated for purely selfish reasons.  I love peanut butter.  But if she does develop an allergy, we will have to teach her how to deal with it in the real world.  Not every restaurant in the world has lacks nuts, and I will not demand that friends rid their houses of peanut butter before I visit with her.  We will talk about labels, and how to read them.  We will talk about epi pens, and how to use them.  We’ll do everything we can to keep her safe without putting the responsibility unreasonably onto others.  But most of all, we won’t put her in a plastic bubble.

Banning foods from schools seems like another way to try and keep kids “safe,” whatever that means.  We have lockdown drills and fire drills.  We talk about stranger danger (regardless of the fact that most abductions happen from known personages, as do most rapes, not incidentally).  We warn them about tabacco, alcohol and drugs.  In some districts we even talk about safe sex.  While it’s not futile, it doesn’t actually protect them.

Teaching children how to cross the road safely didn’t keep two students I’ve know in the past 5 years who were hit by cars while crossing the street–one when he got off the school bus and the other who was just being stupid and not paying attention to where he was going.

Banning foods may be an effort to keep kids safe, but eventually kids grow up and have to live in the real world.  You’re not doing them any favors when you ban the foods–you’re only delaying the inevitable lessons that allergic and non-allergic children alike need to learn.

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3 Responses to Food Allergies and our Schools

  1. Heather says:

    I found this great website, that’s all about food allergies, if you are interested in learning more.

  2. Allisyn says:

    I am by no means wealthy, we are a 1 income family that don’t even make the bills each month… YET we buy things like organic sunbutter b/c of severe food allergies.

    I sincerely hope that your child is not born with food allergies, b/c if so…I do believe that your entire blog will be different. YOU have NO idea what it’s like on a day to day basis with an infant/toddler who is contact allergic.

    It’s not about reaching out and grabbing someone else’s sandwich and teaching them not to. It’s about a fatal allergy that can affect kids just from 2nd hand touching, from breathing in peanut dust…etc.

    Please get your facts straight and read more on subjects before you wish to judge and throw out opinions when you really have NO idea.

  3. whenwillitbemyturn says:

    Allisyn–Of course the experience of having a child with allergies would be life changing. However, it will not change my opinion that my child’s medical needs should NOT affect their classmate’s lives beyond teaching them about allergies and being clear that offering my child something with nuts isn’t a kindness…and to teach my child how to say “no, thank you” to food from sources that aren’t “safe.”

    You have made the choices that are right for your family and I applaud you for making the sacrifices that work for you and yours, even if I would not make the same choices.

    However, as you don’t know anything about me, please do not presume to think you know what I would be like if it were my child. Do you plan to keep your kid in a plastic bubble their whole life? Or are you going to have to teach them to deal with the real world, which has peanuts? Are you going to salt the fields so the peanuts won’t grow, and cure the world of peanuts? No, you’re not. You’re going to have to be vigilant, be on top of stuff, be in contact with your child’s teachers, and teach your child how to handle situations on their own. Banning peanut butter from their school will only create a single safe space in a world full of dangerous ones…and while you might win the battle in elementary school, a college would laugh in your face if you tried it there, as would most high schools. Your infant/toddler needs you to be the vigilant caretaker, but at some point, and much earlier than you’re going to be ready for, you’re going to have to teach them how to keep themselves safe. And that doesn’t just apply to peanut butter.

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