Dr. Samira Jeimy at St. Joseph’s Hospital has important advice for parents of y0ungsters with food allergies starting school this fall.
Starting school is a major life step for youngsters as well as their parents. But when a child has a food allergy, that happy milestone can also be fraught with fear and anxiety.
From EpiPens and classroom cleaning protocols to bake sales and bullying – the perils for pupils with allergies is a learning curve for parents whose youngster is heading off to school for the first time.
Nearly 500,000 children in Canada are living with food allergies that need to be managed daily and the numbers are growing. For many of these children, eating away from home can pose a serious risk, which makes entering the school years a critical time of planning and preparation for parents, says Dr. Samira Jeimy (pictured), an allergist at the Allergy and Immunology Program at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
“Food allergies are associated with significant anxiety that can be compounded by the transition to a new environment,” Dr. Jeimy tells parents. “Acknowledge this and empower yourself before the school year starts.”For parents of her school-age patients, Dr. Jeimy has a practical, top 10 checklist of advice. Number one on her to-do list is for parents to have an anaphylaxis action plan, arrange a meeting with their child’s allergist in the months leading up to the start of school, and review the school’s policies and procedures.
Dr. Jeimy’s checklist for parents also includes the following:
- Be comfortable with using an EpiPen and teach those around you.
- Read labels! Educate yourself about related foods – like peanut/lupine/pea protein cross reactivity.
- If your child has other allergic conditions, ensure they are well controlled. This includes asthma, eczema and allergic rhinitis conjunctivitis. If they are feeling unwell, their learning can suffer.
- Talk to your child’s teacher, principal and all staff who will be taking care of your child (gym teachers, music teachers, cafeteria staff, transportation staff) well in advance. Ensure they are comfortable with an anaphylaxis protocol.
- Ensure the school is aware of proper cleaning procedures. All surfaces should be wiped down with soap and water (not just sanitizer) after meals and snacks. Teachers/lunch room staff or volunteers should wash hands before and after touching food.
- If the school is not able to accommodate your child’s dietary needs, a bagged lunch may be needed.
- Ensure that food and utensils are not shared. Ask the school to consider strategies such as assigned cubicles or designated allergy friendly zones to prevent cross-contamination of food allergens from lunches and snacks stored in the classroom.
- Children are resilient, and sometimes think they are invincible. Coach your child to verbalize if they are feeling unwell. Teach them how to stay safe.
- Help ensure an inclusive environment. Up to one third of children with food allergies have been bullied because of their allergies. This is a growing problem in schools. Be an advocate for your child. Many schools have anti-bullying programs in place. The "It's Not a Joke" campaign can help you, as well as schools, learn more about food allergies and how to prevent food allergy bullying.
- Be aware of your rights as a parent. In Ontario, Sabrina’s law requires that the school board establish and maintain and anaphylaxis policy for children with food allergies. The schools are also required to create individualized actions plan for each student with food allergy.
Dr. Jeimy also suggests parents check out the following reliable resources to help them prepare for and navigate the school year safely:
- Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology – Parent and School Resources
- Food Allergy Canada
- Reducing the Risk of Exposure to Food Allergens
- Living Confidently with Allergies
About St. Joseph’s Food Allergy Clinic
St. Joseph’s Food Allergy Clinic is part of the Allergy and Immunology Program at St. Joseph’s Hospital. At the clinic, children and adults with any kind of food allergy (referral required) can be definitively diagnosed using the latest, evidence-based approaches, including food challenges where the person is exposed to the food and monitored. For certain food allergies, such as peanut, the clinic offers oral immunotherapy under very strict and careful supervision of allergy specialists. Learn more about St. Joseph’s Allergy and Immunology Program.