Food allergies in the classroom often are the cause of confusion, worry and controversy among parents of both allergic and nonallergic students.
Party organizers may not know what to serve to the class-some parents want to bring in homemade items, but aren't sure what is "safe." Teachers don't know if they should still use M&Ms to teach simple math concepts.
Even certain craft projects, such as the ever-popular peanut butter bird feeder, are suddenly off-limits.
Unfortunately, misinformation and misunderstandings can be more than inconvenient-allergens in the classroom can trigger potentially life-threatening food allergy reactions.
With 1 in 12 U.S. children reported to have a food allergy by the journal Pediatrics (and nearly half of those kids experiencing a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis), the odds are better than ever that food allergies will be a factor in local classrooms this year.
So how do you limit food without sacrificing class parties, plain old classmate bonding and even sometimes, important curriculum points?
If you're a teacher or a parent helping out, start by educating yourself about allergies. If you're the parent of an allergic child, educate those around your child.
Cindy McCarty, a Girl Scout leader and substitute teacher in the western suburbs, has dealt with severe food allergies among students and says she is happy to accommodate food allergy needs, but she appreciates being pointed in the right direction.
"The best thing that parents can do is to give me a heads-up about the allergy right away," the mother of two nonallergic kids says. "Tell me where to find safe foods and what to look for when reading food labels. So many times, it's simply a matter of knowing what I'm looking for."
She's also ready to remove a project or food for allergic troop members. "If we have allergies in the troop, we eliminate certain things right off the bat," she says.
Parents and teachers can also switch to nonfood products in the classroom.
Carrie Burk, whose 4-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts, sees both sides of the allergy equation. Before she had her daughter, she was a fourth-grade teacher at an Itasca school with several food-allergic students.
"As a teacher, I know that food does motivate a lot of kids," she says. To make the classroom safe for all, Burk found new ways to motivate, teach and reward-without using food as a tool. One of Burk's most popular student rewards was a balloon toss for birthdays, where she had kids bring in balloons instead of cupcakes or cookies.
At Burk's daughter's preschool in Oswego, there also has been a shift away from food treats. "Most parents bring in nonedible treats such as pencils, stickers and balloons," she says.
Joyce Davis, a Gurnee mom of a peanut-allergic sixth-grader, says it is a huge help when parents of nonallergic kids are open to accepting class party customs that don't always feature allergenic foods as the central focus.
"Every parent remembers when they were kids and they brought homemade cookies and cupcakes to school. It's not the same world," Davis says. "Food allergies can be severe and people can die."
In fact, it was a peanut allergy-related death in Chicago late last year that caused changes at her daughter's elementary school on Chicago's North side, says Tracey Mayer, the mother of a first-grader with multiple food allergies.
Following the death of a girl at a neighboring school, "Our school floundered through many new allergy rules and mandates," Mayer says. Eventually, the administrators and parents decided to limit the amount of food used in class activities.
The new, less food-focused events such as "Electronics Day" (where kids get to bring an iPod, etc.), scavenger hunts, longer recess periods and "No Homework" passes have been a hit.
"Some of the teachers commented that the kids enjoy these activities just as much, if not more, than the food treats," says Mayer.
Class parties present challenges in classrooms with food-allergic students, to be sure, but what about when food plays a role in art projects or science experiments?
Science educators like Kelly Vaiculius, a science center facilitator at La Grange District 102, says food allergies are taken into account for experiments and activities without sacrificing any of the learning opportunities.
"Kids don't miss out on any of the science since they complete the lab work," she says. "Most kids these days are savvy enough to understand that changes are made to keep them-or their classmates-safe and that they don't usually affect the group and the learning experience."
In her years as a teacher, Burk says that while foods are often the go-to for certain educational activities (such as using M&Ms for math), it's just as easy to use an inedible item. In fact, de-emphasizing sugary treats may have long-term health benefits, especially important when childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes are also on the rise.
"It's not just a food allergy aspect, it's a health one," says Burk. "Instead of focusing on what foods students can't have in the classroom, I think we can promote healthier eating."
Jenny Kales is a freelance writer and mother of two from La Grange Park. She also is the creator of the award-winning blog, “The Nut-Free Mom,” nut-freemom.com and is always happy to contribute allergy-friendly food to a class party.