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Food Allergies in The Classroom: Using Science and Empathy to Drive Your Cupcake Decisions

What kind of children do we want to raise and what kind of parents do we want to be? Let's invest in the health and wellbeing of our classroom communities, and not sell out for a short-lived sugar high.
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In a recent piece entitled Why Do Your Kid's Allergies Mean My Kid Can't Have a Birthday? the author makes arguments that are familiar to food allergy parents. It's no fun to celebrate my child's birthday at school without sugar! My child wasn't born with a life threatening health issue, so why should another kid drag down my child's fun?

The public health data suggests that with the epidemic of obesity, dental disease and ADHD, children absolutely do not need more food in the classroom, let alone the kind of non-nutritive treats that seem to be on the front lines of this war. But let's look beyond that for a minute. As a parent, I hope you will consider the following information, based on epidemiology, medicine and psychology before you decide if that cupcake in the classroom is worth fighting for.

Some issues to consider:

1) Life-threatening food allergy, which is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, is an emerging epidemic. Approximately two kids in every classroom have a food allergy and there has been a 50 percent rise in this condition in the last decade. Because the immune system is so complex, you can't predict exactly how severe a child's reaction will be -- it could range from itching and hives, to difficulty breathing and death. And just because a child has always had mild reactions, it doesn't mean that they won't have a severe reaction in the future. There isn't a cure for food allergies right now. Food allergic children are instructed to strictly avoid the food or foods that can kill them and to carry an EpiPen. The epinephrine injection can help them breathe again in case their airway begins closing during an allergic reaction.

2) Seeing a child have an allergic reaction is stressful for teachers and classmates. Although many teachers are trained on how to deliver emergency epinephrine, most would rather not have to manage such a frightening health crisis. If the physician of a food allergic child has suggested limiting certain foods in the classroom, most teachers don't want to override medical judgment and have dozens of events that involve homemade food. Severe allergic reactions are extremely frightening for classmates. Witnessing this type of event can cause fear, guilt, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress in some children.

3) Children derive benefits from showing empathy and compassion to those who are different from themselves. Kids who can take on the perspective of another person tend to show lower levels of aggression and perform better academically. When children grow up, they may reap the benefits of caring for those around them. Adults who are more tuned into the needs of others tend to help others more and experience more social support. Empathetic adults might be more successful in various professional fields, including medicine and business.

There are emotional, psychological and public health benefits to accommodating children with food allergies. These benefits are extremely important for food allergic children, but they are also significant when you consider how traumatic it may be if classmates and teachers witness a life threatening reaction. In addition, encouraging our children to be kind, compassionate and inclusive has benefits that may last well into adulthood. What kind of children do we want to raise and what kind of parents do we want to be? Let's invest in the health and wellbeing of our classroom communities, and not sell out for a short-lived sugar high.