Food Allergies in the Classroom: two girls studying

Nicole Balin is an educator and writer living in Seattle, WA. She has worked with undergraduate students, elementary-aged children, and is currently teaching seventh grade English at independent day school.

With the leaves rapidly changing color and school now in full swing, my students and I have begun to settle into a solid routine. Part of that routine has meant figuring out how to best navigate food allergies in the classroom so that everyone is able to learn in a safe space. Below are some of my thoughts and advice on how teachers (and parents) can best support kids with food allergies during school.

The Rise of Awareness of Food Allergies in the Classroom

Based on recent studies, it’s no surprise that the rise of food allergies in kids has called for the urgent need to safely and fairly address food allergies in the classroom. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergy in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 and, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education organization, more than 15 percent of school-aged children with food allergies have experienced a reaction in school.

How Teachers Navigate Food Allergies in the Classroom

While opinions over how to best respond to food allergies in school have included everything from nut-free zones to food-free classrooms, there isn’t necessary one way that works for every school, every teacher, or every parent. However, the rise of food allergies has absolutely impacted the way teachers operate in the classroom. As a teacher myself, I’ve found that I read food labels more carefully of whatever I bring into the classroom and make sure that I’m always aware of my students’ medical information. If I want my classroom to be a space where everyone can express their ideas and learn in a supportive environment, then it’s essential that I consider my students’ medical needs just as seriously as their academic needs.

How Parents Can Help Teachers Navigate Food Allergies

Parents should know that teachers want what’s best for every child’s safety in the room, whether that’s food-related or not. You and your child’s teacher are a partnership who both want your child to feel safe and supported in the classroom. Scheduling time to talk to your child’s teacher about concerns and clearly communicate advice you may have is a good idea throughout the year, especially if anything changes in your child’s medical history. If your child has a Nima, showing your child’s teacher how to use the Nima and providing extra cartridges in the classroom will help the teacher feel empowered to help your child during the school year. It can also strengthen the bond between your child and his or her teacher, knowing there’s valuable advocacy for his or her food safety at school.

A Teacher’s Perspective

In terms of my own experience as a teacher handling food allergies, I’ve noticed that the challenges vary depending on age group. When I worked as an instructional assistant in an elementary school setting, food was much more present in the classroom, from birthday celebrations to holidays and curriculum activities. Parents of children with food allergies often provided food safe alternatives that could be stored in a faculty fridge. This option is win-win because the child with the food allergy is not left out of the celebration, gets to help select what treat they’ll eat, and parents can know for sure that what their child is eating won’t cause a reaction.

As a current seventh grade teacher, I’d say that food seems to be less frequently consumed in the classroom but is present in smaller student settings, such as homeroom to celebrate a child’s birthday. Older kids tend to have a bit more awareness of how to handle their food allergies and typically know which foods they need to avoid to stay safe. As a teacher, I have access to current and confidential medical information for each of my homeroom students–forms that tell me who has specific food allergies. It’s important these forms are always up-to-date, so if any allergy information changes, parents need to communicate this immediately to their child’s school.

In part because of my work with Nima, I’m always aware of the possibility of students at my school with food allergies, whether they’re in my class or not. Enforcing hand washing, wiping down desks after eating, and encouraging kids to advocate for themselves are just a few easy ways I manage food allergies, regardless of which age level I’m teaching. I also think it’s important for educators to consider including non-food incentives and celebrations throughout the year as well. However, with Halloween just a few weeks away, I’m making sure that my candy supply in the classroom is both gluten-free and nut-free!

Are you a teacher who commonly navigates food allergies in the classroom? What advice do you have for other educators and parents? Let us know in the comments below!