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Vigilance key to controlling food allergies

He’d been in school just more than a month when my son’s kindergarten teacher almost killed him. It wasn’t intentional, of course, but a mistake that could have been fatal.

You see, my son has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. Just one bite of something with nuts can cause a reaction so severe that his blood pressure could drop, his windpipe could swell shut and he could die within minutes – a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.

So how did my son’s teacher almost kill him?

She gave him Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as a treat on his birthday. He was turning 5. He couldn’t read.

Three years later, my daughter is 5 and starting kindergarten at Whispering Meadows Elementary, a school with an exemplary food allergy policy and amazing staff. I am confident that the kind of mistake that almost killed her brother won’t happen here.

But I know that not every school – even those within the same school district – takes food allergies as seriously as Whispering Meadows or Aboite Elementary, where her brother goes now. But they should.

The number of children with food allergies continues to increase – the Centers for Disease Control reports that one out of 25 school-age children has a food allergy. The risks to these children are so great, and yet unknown to so many, that it’s worth noting a few things about this life-threatening condition as we start the school year.

First, if you’re a parent and your child brings home a note announcing the need for a nut-free classroom, please take this seriously. We know checking labels on snacks sent into the classroom is extra work, but we need your help to keep our child alive.

If you are worried about what your child can safely consume in the classroom, ask your teacher, school nurse or the parent of the child with the food allergy.

For example, Goldfish crackers and Teddy Grahams are safe for kids with peanut and tree nut allergies and a hit with most kids. And remember, PB&J can still be part of your child’s lunchtime menu – any school with a good food allergy policy offers a nut-free table in the cafeteria for those who need it.

If you’re a teacher of a child with a life-threatening allergy, thank you for keeping our kids safe. We know this is a big responsibility on top of countless other demands, and we appreciate your attentiveness. We appreciate your checking labels every time food comes into the classroom and making time for hand washing.

And thank you for treating our kids like everyone else and not segregating those with food allergies from the rest of the class. Bullying is a serious concern for kids with food allergies, and we appreciate your minimizing their differences.

Finally, if you’re a school administrator and your school doesn’t already have a food allergy policy, please consider adding one (and, yes, I once again recommend Whispering Meadows’ snack policy as an example). Those of us in education spend a lot of time and money implementing policies to prevent tragedies arising from malicious intent. But we have to be equally diligent to make sure that another kind of tragedy, a tragedy of innocent inattentiveness, doesn’t come through the doors in the form of a 5-year-old’s birthday treat.

Liz Schwab is the mother of two school-age children with food allergies, an area preschool teacher and a freelance writer. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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