It’s Food Allergy Awareness week here in Australia, so it’s timely for a post from me on this very polarising topic. I have tried very hard to keep emotion out, and just be logical, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. It’s an enormously emotional and personal issue for me and all families dealing with anaphylaxis.
An aspect of being a food allergy mum I find difficult is the attitude some people have towards kids with allergies (and their parents) and the online war raging about food bans at school. There’s been plenty of blogs written on the topic and the comments that come up are breathtakingly nasty. This one here, also reproduced on Huffington Post here was particularly inflammatory and inspired a slew of highly emotional comments, blogs and articles slamming the author and defending the rights of allergy kids to have a safe environment at school. I’m not sure the author intended to imply that her kids birthday cake was more important than another kids life, but that is how the article was taken by many.
When I read the comments on posts like this I note that there is a lot of support out there, but a lot of real hatred and resentment too.
So here I am, weighing in. Fortunately my audience is small, so I shouldn’t get too much hate mail, but I’m thickening my skin just in case.
1. “Kids with allergies need to learn how to manage them – when they get into the real world, no one is going to protect them there”
Yes, they do, absolutely. Let’s be absolutely clear here – the advocates for nut bans in schools are referring to infants/primary schools where kids are as young as four. As far as I’m aware, no one is suggesting food bans in high schools. These kids, including mine, are being taught each and everyday about management of their own allergies from first diagnosis when they were babies. When my daughter was 2 she sat at birthday party tables with the other kids frenzying on lollies, chocolates, fairy bread, cakes, sausage rolls and all other unsafe foods while she ate only from her own plate without complaint. Not once, not ever did she try to reach for other food or cry about missing out. At 2 she knew that it is what it is.
But these little, little kids are not immune to mistakes. They can get caught up in the moment, accept something they shouldn’t, and at school there isn’t someone watching them every minute of the day. A child held out something to my friends 7 year old tree nut allergic child to ask her if it was safe for her. Before realising what it was she took it in her hands and ended up in hospital for 3 days. It was a muesli bar still in it’s wrapping.
2. “Nut bans create a false sense of security – you cant guarantee a nut-free environment”
I’m sorry, I don’t buy this one. Managing allergies for very young children is about layers of protection: keeping dangerous food out of reach is one layer of several in protecting from life threatening situations. Carrying epipens (or equivalent) that are accessible and in date, having staff trained to both recognise and treat anaphylaxis – they are all essential layers in keeping an anaphylactic child safe at school.
Of course there’s no guarantees of a nut-free environment, but it certainly helps if a five year old child with a peanut allergy is not surrounded by peanut butter sandwiches. If using the word “ban” although technically incorrect discourages a parent from packing a deadly food into their child’s lunchbox, then let’s keep using it.
3. “You have no right to dictate to me what I can and cannot put in my child’s lunch box”
True. I can only appeal to your sense of decency, to your desire to not have children get sick or worse in school. I promise you, if you had an anaphylactic child you would feel very, very differently. And if you don’t wish to see it from an allergy parent’s perspective, see it from your child’s. What do you think would be the long term psychological effect on your child if it was their food that put one of their classmates into anaphylaxis?
4. “Allergy parents are exaggerating, they are just helicopter parents”
No, actually we’re not. We’re just not. A trace amount and 15 minutes is all it takes. The tragic story of Natalie Giorgi here is just one of many demonstrations of how serious this all is. A girl educated and vigilant, a mistake bite spat out, her father a doctor administering 3 epipens couldn’t save her.
Emotional, yes. Tiger mums, maybe at times. But exaggerating? No. Just no. We are advocates for our kids who have a serious medical condition that they didn’t ask for. As for the helicopter parent thing, I hate that sometimes I have to be that. But only in situations where there is unsafe food around, and less and less now the older my daughter gets.
Apparently there are parents around that have not had their child diagnosed, and are acting on their own assumptions without medical advice. Others that lie about being allergic to get out of eating a food they don’t like. Others that don’t get their children tested to determine if they’ve outgrown the allergy. Trust me, we get as exasperated over those things as you do. They discredit those who suffer genuine, serious and life threatening allergies.
5. “If it’s that bad, the child should be home-schooled”
I’m not really sure how to respond to this. These kids are entitled to be educated at school along with everyone else. They are normal kids with a medical condition that can be managed with care. And home-schooling just isn’t an option for many.
6. “Why should your kids allergies mean my child cant have a birthday”
This is the title of the article linked to above. I think it was poorly chosen by the author, although it is inflammatory so it probably had the effect she was looking for.
I’m actually dead set against treats and birthday cakes at school, not because of allergies, but because of the growing obesity rates in Australia and most other developed countries around the world. We did not have cakes at school when I was there – this is a tradition that has crept in sometime in the last 20 years. Every kid having cake at school on their birthday adds up to a lot of cakes in a year. Celebrate with non-food rewards at school and save the treats for the weekend and after school.
7. “Why should I have to cater for your child”.
Actually you don’t, I’d rather you didn’t. All due respect, I don’t trust that you’ll get it right. It took me months, years to feel confident that I was getting it right, and I was motivated by keeping my child alive. Please don’t cater for my child, but don’t exclude her either. She can come to birthday parties, she adores them, but while she’s little I have to come too and if after talking to you about the catering I’m not comfortable that the food is safe, I’ll bring hers. I won’t ask you to change the menu. Other kids birthday parties are hard work for me because I stay up the night before making party food she can have, trying if possible to make it similar to what you are providing so she doesn’t feel too different. But I do it, because she’s my kid and that’s what we do.
Exclude the food, not the child.
To be honest, I’d be really grateful if you didn’t have bowls of peanuts lying around, or if you didn’t do egg and spoon races, but if you do, I’ll be there and we’ll manage it. I think when you see a little girl or boy’s sadness at being excluded you might change you mind next time.
8. “So we ban nuts – where does it end, do we have to ban eggs, dairy and wheat too?”
This is a hard one, and one where even the allergy community don’t agree. Many allergy mums wont agree with me here. I think we stop at nuts (peanuts and tree nuts). Why? Because they are the most common, the most deadly, the ones that generally don’t get outgrown and the ones that are not “staples” in the average western diet.
My daughter has been anaphylactic to dairy in the past, and she’s outgrown that now, but even if she hadn’t I wouldn’t be demanding a dairy ban when she goes to school next year. Raw egg is dangerous for her, but I wont be asking for a ban on mayonnaise. Tiny amounts of peanuts can kill. By school age many of the other allergies have been outgrown, but peanut and tree nut allergy is often for life. And nuts are not difficult to eliminate for 5 out of 21 meals and 10 snacks a week.
I do support banning cakes and other treats and junk foods from school for health reasons other than allergies (see No.7).
9. “My child will only eat peanut butter on his/her sandwiches.”
Three words: Eskal Freenut Butter. It looks and tastes very, very similar to peanut butter, but is made from sunflower seeds.
Make sure you write on the lunch packaging what it is so it’s not mistaken for peanut butter and gets your child into trouble, or thrown away. NOTE: Sunflower allergy exists but is not in the “Top 9” most common allergens. It may not be an option if there is a sunflower allergy at your childs school.
10. “These allergies weren’t around when we were kids”
That doesn’t mean they aren’t real now. Something is going on to cause it. There is research going on all around the world. There are theories, but no answers yet. We just don’t know. And please don’t tell me I am too clean and hygienic so my daughters immune system has gone whacky. Did you put your 3 month old baby in dirt to play? I rarely vacuum, don’t use many cleaning products, have dogs that lick, and live on a farm. It’s a theory, not an answer.
It absolutely is a hassle being mindful of allergies, I get your frustration. I have no choice on the matter, I do it every single day so I know all about it. And yes, you have a “right” to put whatever you want to in your child’s lunchbox.
But please if you can, just understand that allergies are now a fact of life, they are getting worse not better. Your children will always go to school with and have friends with allergies. It’s the new reality, and until there’s a cure, we need to accept it, adapt to it and keep these kids safe. This isn’t a time for righteousness, its a time for empathy and acceptance.
Be frustrated at me, hate me if you like, but don’t hate the kids with allergies, they didn’t ask for it. They wish it away everyday. Oh and you know what – it’s the teachers that want the bans, they don’t want to be jabbing needles into kids legs, and all that hand washing is a time consuming pain in the rear.
To those many friends and family who are supportive, mindful, and empathetic and go out of your way to ensure my daughter is safe and included, I thank you and I love you.