How to help school with safe food is a topic of concern for parents of children with celiac disease. You quickly learn that there is already a food allergy community and you’re a part of it. This isn’t the time to discuss autoimmune disease versus allergies; this is the place to join forces with everyone concerned about safe food at school.
Each school has students and staff with celiac disease, food allergies and intolerances plus anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. Yet parents work and have other responsibilities so rather than expect them to show their concern the way you would, find out how you can work together. You’re not the first parent to be concerned about safe food at school so connect through the school administration, their website, at school parent meetings or by word of mouth. Your kids may already have friends who also have food restrictions.
May is the month dedicated to raising awareness for celiac disease, food allergies and asthma; three topics near and dear to my heart. I’ve spent the past 30 years working as a health educator and 12 years involved at school advocating for health. My passion for food and volunteering with the celiac community continues to inspire me to share ideas and help increase awareness.
No matter how you’re involved at school you can help create a safer environment by increasing awareness. Many years ago our school had a Comprehensive School Health Committee and out of that came many ideas including a Food Allergy Club.
School Parties and Food Allergy Club
Dealing with food parties at school is not new. How ironic that parties meant to create community almost always involve food and therefore exclude the kids with food restrictions. I’ve seen efforts to make gluten-free, dairy-free pancakes in a separate area but parents don’t know if it’s really safe. It’s easier to keep kids at home for a stress free breakfast with safe food.
There are many ways to deal with food parties at school and they all revolve around education. Here are three ideas that promote awareness of food allergies.
- Get help from the school to find the children with food restrictions. Create a Food Allergy Club or group and organize for them to sit at a separate table. Have them all bring their own food, something special to them, and demonstrate that it’s no big deal.
- Be bold and have the Food Allergy Club not eat. Agree to eat a good breakfast or special dinner at home that day and at school do a craft at their designated table.
- Host a booth with the Food Allergy Club kids at a table inviting others to come and ask questions. Help them create a list of questions to post so the topics important to them are discussed.
Ideas To Help Food Allergy Kids at School
Ideas are endless so ask your kids what messages they want to share with the other students. Keep the focus on awareness, not food. Implement as many ideas as possible to empower your kids to keep sharing their messages.
Here are some ideas I’ve seen.
- Post awareness signs related to healthy eating, top food allergies, anaphylaxis and use of an Epi-pen, celiac disease, cross contamination, food bullying and mental health.
- Host a colouring contest.
- Use holidays and special awareness days to keep the enthusiasm going like Nutrition Month, Food Allergy Awareness Week, International Red Sneakers Day, Celiac Awareness Month, Food Bullying Awareness, Mental Health Week, the Teal Pumpkin Project and Halloween. Learn about local awareness campaigns started by parents of families whose children died from eating unsafe food.
- Demonstrate how to use an epinephrine auto-injector using practice pens.
- Have fun making a Food Allergy Survival Kit.
PIN for later…
Have your group create their own Food Allergy Survival Kit as a fun activity that doesn’t involve food. It’s also a fun way to get them to talk about what’s hard being a kid with food restrictions. This photo is the kit I made for our Celiac Kids Meetup group so I included a card with information about celiac disease. Share the idea with kids and you’ll be amazed to see what they come up with.
K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple & Safe
Change can be painfully slow. Based on my experience with schools, as both a parent and a school council member, here’s my advice.
- Set realistic goals and when you get frustrated lower your expectations. Education doesn’t happen at an event, it’s a lifelong process. We all learn in different ways and only when we’re ready.
- Focus on the food allergy kids and their experience at school, not on food. Be a role model and resist the urge to prove to the entire school what we already know; gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free cupcakes can be delicious.
Ideas To Hep Increase Awareness At School
- Learn what school policies exist and help improve them. Create and implement new policies where appropriate. Ask parents what they think the school community should know about food allergies.
- Advocate for a page on the school website to post information and links.
- Ask the principal to include a single slide or comment about food allergies and school policies at every presentation to parents, students and staff.
- Implement a system of reporting and dealing with food allergy incidents at school. Focus on learning from mistakes rather than embarrassing teachers or parents who didn’t know Honey Nut Cheerios have nuts or that Rice Krispies aren’t gluten free.
- Share stories. Sadly there are many examples of children who died from unsafe food at school. In Ontario, Canada Sabrina’s Law was created to help schools understand and deal with food allergies following the death of 13 year-old Sabrina Shannon. These stories honour the families and are very impactful. Do some research and share them.
Resources For Food Allergy Awareness
Don’t reinvent the wheel, find existing resources and use them. Here are some I know of.
- Allergic Living has toolkits and so much more, I can’t say enough good things about them.
- Food Allergy Canada, formerly Anaphylaxis Canada.
- Order free practice epinephrine auto-injectors and other resources or schools in Canada at Epi Pen.
- Check out TurnItTeal.org to learn about The Teal Pumpkin Project. Find out why buildings all over the world are lit up in different colours for Celiac Awareness Day and Food Allergy Awareness Week.
- To make learning fun. At FoodAllergyFun.blogspot.ca you’ll find t-shirts with fun cartoons.
Kids are smart and most of them eat a few times a day. Whether they start a Food Allergy Club or simply post signs around the school that’s increasing awareness. Every action counts, no matter how small, to create a better future and a safer school environment.
I’d love to hear stories or see pictures from you or your kids on this topic. Share them in the comments below or email me if you’d like me to reply with a personal note to your child. We’re all in this together.
Originally posted 2015, updated May 2021