Is your school Food Allergy SMART?

Written by Jackie Nevard

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I want to cover four common questions that schools need to consider to provide a safe environment for all students. 

1 - A peanut allergy is the worst allergy to have?

 Actually the answer is No. While it's important to know nut allergies are life-threatening, there are many other allergens that have the potential to be life-threatening. The last three fatalities in Australia were due to a milk allergy.  

Many people are aware of nut allergies and we see signs in schools such as ‘nut free zone’, ‘nut aware’, 'allergy friendly - no nuts here’, but where does that leave all the students who have allergies to other foods including the top nine allergens as we refer to them in Australia. They are milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soy, sesame, fish and shellfish.  

So what can we do to help kids with allergies apart from requesting peanut butter sandwiches be left for eating at home? Actually, blanket food bans are not really recommended as there is no way a school can monitor or guarantee their outcomes. What’s more the top three allergens in children are peanut, milk, and egg. So if we can’t ban foods, what can we do?  

The answer is raising allergy awareness and improving student education.  

2 - Though schools conduct anaphylaxis training for teachers every year and ensure staff are educated on how to administer an EpiPen, are they actually managing allergies?  

A big part of managing allergies within schools is raising student awareness. Do you know how student awareness is being raised in your school? Are students really engaging in understanding allergy awareness? Is awareness raising being conducted in a child-friendly way?  

In my experience, very little is being done in our schools. Students play such a key role in this ever-increasing challenge of managing allergies at school. A student will probably be the first one to notice something is wrong with their classmate. If students are not educated on the signs and symptoms and the seriousness of allergies they will not be able to act quickly and appropriately.  

If teachers are educated and the awareness of every student at the school is raised, everyone can act quickly to get help once they realise something is wrong with a classmate.  

There is no cure for allergies. Avoidance is the only answer. Having good school policies such as not sharing food, and washing hands after eating will help minimise reactions. However, if students are not aware of the seriousness of food allergies, this simply won’t happen. Most kids will continue thinking, how can an everyday food harm someone? However, if students are taught about allergies, food sharing is more likely to stop. Kids are excellent little food police when given the knowledge and will do everything they can to help keep their friends safe.  

So what about hand washing? This is definitely not happening in many schools. Children are taught from an early age to wash their hands to remove germs but do not understand why they should do this after eating. If they understand why washing their hands after eating is so important, they are much more likely to comply. As more and more schools now use iPads, the risk of cross-contamination with classroom equipment, water bubblers, and door handles has become very real. Simply explaining this to students will result in increased levels of hand washing and decreased the spread of allergens.

3 - Do you know what anaphylaxis looks like? Google it and look at the images that come up.  

We all know we are far more likely to remember images rather than just written text. While hives and facial swelling are NOT life-threatening, internal symptoms can be far more subtle. A change in voice or a cough are hardly dramatic, but they are signs that the airways are being compromised which is life-threatening. People often hesitate to act because they are unsure, waiting for something dramatic to happen. It’s vital that the signs of anaphylaxis are spoken about and understood so teaching staff know when to act.  

Is EpiPen training really enough? 

Learning how to respond to a situation and administering an EpiPen is purely reactive. While obviously important, it is also vital to be proactive to reduce the chance of a reaction in the first place.  

4 - It must be so hard having a food allergy and not being able to eat things like chocolate or pizza. This is a comment allergy parents have heard many times. How inclusive is your school?  

Surprisingly, this is not the worst thing about having allergies. Children have often had their allergy from an early age so they don’t know what other foods like chocolate or pizza taste like. Instead, they have grown up eating alternative safe foods. Much worse than not eating certain foods, children often feel excluded, feel like a burden, left out, different and not part of the school community. These feelings are far worse than not being able to eat a particular food. Missing out on food is not as bad as missing out socially and being part of a group.  

Can you imagine a school community where allergies are spoken about, and where it’s normal? The reality is that these days, allergies are a normal part of childhood and something that needs to be addressed at school. 

We should not wait for a reaction to happen or a fatality within our schools before we realise we should have educated our students. It literally is one lesson that could be life-saving.  

So what are you doing to educate your students?  

Come along to my session in the Free Seminar Program at the National Education Summit Brisbane on Friday 31 May 2019 during Food Allergy Week.

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