According to statistics released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Additional statistics show that 1 in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy. Children who are newly diagnosed may not understand how to keep themselves safe.
Children spend the majority of their days at school. With that in mind, targeting messages toward classmates of a student with food allergies can help make inroads in understanding regarding allergies. But such messages have to make sense to them. AllergyHome.org provides a 4 1/2 minute module by Dr. Michael Pistiner, a pediatric allergist, that helps to simplify the concepts behind food allergies.
As we prepare for Food Allergy Awareness Week next week, here are eight suggestions to facilitate conversation about food allergies in the school setting.
- Have a health professional come to your class. The parent of a student with food allergies may also be able to share information in a way that the students will understand.
- Define food allergies in a way kids can understand. Dr. Pistiner explains food allergies as a person’s immune system treating food like an invader. He further defines “immune” as the thing that fights off germs.
- Discuss the foods that are the most common allergens, but remind students that different people are allergic to different food. When age appropriate, coloring pictures of foods may help remind the students of the specific foods their classmate(s) are allergic to.
- Stress the importance of quick treatment when an allergic reaction is suspected. A person with food allergies can get very sick very fast. One of the most important things a student can do to help a peer with a food allergy is to be ready to find an adult for help.
- Teach the students the saying, “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it”. Students should learn that it may be dangerous for the classmate to eat a food that does not have a nutrition label with a list of what is in the food. The Protect A Life (PAL) food allergy handout can serve as a reminder in the classroom about safety precautions for those with food allergies.
- Explain that it’s ok to say “no” to sharing. Students should be aware that when it comes to sharing food, sharing could be dangerous.
- Reiterate the importance of handwashing. It is important for the student with allergies to wash his or her hands before eating, but it’s equally important for students to wash their hands after eating to prevent spreading bits of food particles that may cause a reaction.
- Remind students that it’s never ok to tease or bully a classmate with food allergies. Have students think about and share how they might feel if they suddenly found out they couldn’t eat their favorite food anymore.
With the growing prevalence of food allergies, it’s important that as health communicators we help facilitate conversations in schools in such a way that students understand the information and help keep the environment safe for their peers.