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Food Allergy Back To School Guide

My first day of college at University of Toronto
My first day of 6th grade

With back to school season rapidly approaching (or already starting for some of you), I figured it was time that I put together a guide with my top tips for succeeding this school year with food allergies. Starting a new school year can be nerve wracking for anyone, but that fear can definitely be exacerbated when food allergies are a part of the picture. I was born with multiple food allergies and attended public school my whole life, so I have quite a bit of experience with navigating school settings and an intimate knowledge of the challenges they can bring. I also attended a four-year university far away from home and recently received my Master’s degree, so I know what it’s like to navigate higher education with allergies and have created this guide with students of all ages in mind! Food is an unavoidable part of going to school whether you are 5 or 25. I’m confident that these tips will help ensure that you or your child are set up for success and safety!

Below, I have three tips that are applicable for all grade levels and then break it down by elementary, middle/high school, and college. My goal is to help you all avoid making the same mistakes that I have over the years and have a smooth back-to-school season!

Tips For All Grade Levels

1. Go to the Doctor & Have Medications Up To Date

This is by far the most important tip that I can include on this guide. It is crucial to make sure that you or your child's epinephrine auto-injectors, inhalers, and other medications you may keep in a medical kit are up to date so that in the event of an allergic reaction, you or your child are able to be kept safe until receiving further medical treatment. I highly recommend scheduling you or your child's primary care provider and allergist appointments in the summer to make sure that all prescriptions are renewed and allergen testing can be completed before the school year begins. This is especially important if you are establishing a 504 plan for your child for the first time, which relies on medical information from you or your child's doctors. Spokin has a helpful epinephrine reminder feature on their app that alerts you in advance when you or your child's auto-injector is expiring.

2. Communicate Allergies to School Administration and Teachers ASAP

It is important to communicate what you or your child are allergic to, the severity of the allergy, and create a safety plan with both administration and teachers as soon as possible. I will go more in depth into what establishing a 504 plan looks like below, but beyond formally registering you or your child's allergies with their school, it is generally a good idea to set up a meeting with the school's administrators and your child's homeroom teacher before the school year starts to discuss their allergy. The reason I emphasize both the administration and their homeroom teacher, is that it is often not enough to only speak with one. Depending on the school, the administration may not communicate well with your child's teacher about the severity of their allergy or vice versa.

3. Bring Your Own Food

I highly suggest bringing your own food to school if you have food allergies at all ages to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. I find this is easier in elementary and middle school when parents are often still packing their child's lunch, but gets a little more difficult as the child gets older. I remember that at my high school, we were able to go off campus for lunch and it was viewed as cool to go out to eat with your friends. For me, most of the off-campus food options nearby were not safe for me, so I had to always pack a lunch and am glad that I did. In college and grad school, I still packed my own lunch due to having a dining hall with poor food allergy protocols and limited safe options on campus. I always found it easiest and less stressful to come prepared with my own food.

Tips For Elementary-Aged Students

1. Establish a 504 Plan

A 504 plan is a legally binding written food allergy management plan created between families of children with food allergies and the schools that they attend. This plan provides protections and requires accommodations for people with disabilities. Under Section 504, food allergies are often considered a disability depending on their severity. Essentially, a 504 plan puts in writing what the school will do to keep your child safe and for that reason alone, is very important to have. The first step in establishing a 504 plan is to contact the school's principal and the school district's 504 coordinator. I suggest emailing them and asking to have your child evaluated for 504 eligibility to have everything documented. Once your child is determined eligible, find a 504 template or sample online that suits your needs best and set up a meeting to create the 504 plan. Once the plan is signed by the coordinator and you, distribute the plan to all school staff members who your child may interact with.

This article by Kids With Food Allergies does a great job of highlighting the steps of the 504 process and answering frequently asked questions about what accommodations to ask for and what to do if your child's school has no nurse on site.

2. Find Ways to Make the Classroom Safer

In your meeting with your child's teacher before the start of the school year, I recommend coming prepared with ideas about how to make the classroom safer and informational posters to help the teacher understand the severity of the allergy. FARE has an amazing classroom toolkit for food allergies that includes educational posters and quick reference guides for how to stay safe on field trips, how to clean properly, and non-food treat ideas. I suggest having these resources available to share with the teacher during the meeting to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Some possible ways to make your child's classroom safer include discussing restricting food from the classroom altogether (although this may not be possible depending on the school), restricting your child's allergen(s) in the classroom, only allowing specific allergy-friendly foods from a designated list to be brought in as class-wide treats, educating the teacher on food allergy safety and use of epinephrine auto-injectors, keeping your child's medical kit accessible at all times, and prioritizing non-food ways to celebrate. Glow sticks, marble, pencils, and stickers are all great non-food rewards that can be used to celebrate and remain inclusive of those with food allergies. Additionally, teachers can incentivize children with special privileges like extra computer time or a no homework pass.

3. Practice With Your Child

Before the school year starts, practice with your child what to do in different scenarios to build their and your confidence in their food allergies. For instance, practice what to do in case they start to have symptoms of an allergic reaction, including using their medical kit themselves and communicating what is going on to an adult. I remember being as young as four years old and knowing that if I saw a hive on my body, to wash the area with soap and water and apply Benadryl topical spray. I also remember knowing how to use my epinephrine auto-injector at a young age and knowing how to train people to use it, which made me feel more safe at school. It is also a good idea to role-play how to communicate their allergies to adults and other children. Although this was outside of school, I once had an allergic reaction when I was five at a family friend's gathering because an adult came up to me and offered me unsafe food, not knowing that I had allergies. I suspected that the food was unsafe but couldn't communicate my allergies well enough, so the adult insisted that I tried some. Of course, I ended up having an allergic reaction and eventually being okay, but I share this story to emphasize the importance of being able to verbalize your allergies and their severity to others at a young age.

Tips for Middle School & High School Students

1. Establish a 504 Plan

Again, if not already established, make sure your child has a 504 plan. This plan legally binds the school to provide accommodations for your child to help keep them safe. The first step in establishing a 504 plan is to contact the school's principal and the school district's 504 coordinator. I suggest emailing them and asking to have your child evaluated for 504 eligibility to have everything documented. Once your child is determined eligible, find a 504 template or sample online that suits your needs best and set up a meeting to create the 504 plan. Once the plan is signed by the coordinator and you, distribute the plan to all school staff members who your child may interact with.

This article by Kids With Food Allergies does a great job of highlighting the steps of the 504 process and answering frequently asked questions about what accommodations to ask for and what to do if your child's school has no nurse on site.

2. Practice Self-Advocacy

Besides having your child's medication up to date, the most important tip that I can share with parents is to empower your child to be their own advocate as early as possible. This can be done by role-playing and practicing how to communicate their allergies in low-risk scenarios, like with family members or with staff members at trusted restaurants. Your child is inevitably going to venture out into the world on their own and have to navigate it safely with their food allergies, so, why not make it easier for them and give them the skills and confidence to do so now?

An important part of adolescence is developing independence and often spending more time with friends. Food is an unavoidable part of socialization, so it's important to practice with your child at home how they will advocate for themselves and keep themselves safe. How will they explain their allergies to new friends? What will they say when their friends suggest going out to dinner? Are there any safe restaurants that they can choose? How will they talk to restaurant staff about their allergies? These are all examples of questions that you can go through with your tween/teen before they end up in higher-risk scenarios, like at an unfamiliar restaurant or a new friend's house.

3. Communicate Allergies to Teachers and Friends

Even though it may seem less important to do so because middle school and high school students often have different periods and therefore, multiple different classrooms that they are in each day, it is still important for your child to communicate their allergies to each of their teachers at the start of the year. I remember finding myself in sticky situations where teachers would surprise us with a pizza party or ice cream social and I had to stay outside of the room because of my anaphylactic milk allergy. This could've been avoided if I had communicated my allergy and its severity at the start of the year.

Additionally, it can be trickier to communicate allergies to friends and classmates as your child gets older. For me, I found the pressure to be cool, well-liked, or normal made me minimize my food allergies to others. I would avoid bringing up my allergies and would eat before all social occasions to avoid needing to explain my allergies to anyone. Of course, inevitably I would have to explain my allergies to friends and they often would be confused as to why I didn't tell them sooner. All of this is to say that the sooner your child tells their friends about their allergies, the better. I've been the brunt of many jokes and have had to unfortunately grow thick skin from my allergies over the years, but true friends will want to keep your child safe and will want to learn about your child's allergies.

4. Find Ways to Carry Medical Kit At All Times

I found it challenging to carry my medical kit with me when I'd be out with my friends in high school, especially because all of my friends typically only carried their phones and wallets on them. I often felt tempted to leave my medical kit at home, but learned from personal experience that that is not an option if I want to keep myself safe. Whether it's carrying a fanny pack that fits your epinephrine auto-injectors, inhaler, and other medications or always being the friend to carry a tote bag with your stuff in it, find a way to carry your medical kit at all times. Eventually, my friends loved that I was always the one who brought a big purse because I could hold onto all of the items that they didn't want to carry themselves. If your child is struggling with this, you could find a bag, purse, or carrier that they like to incentivize them more.

5. Talk About How to Have "Firsts" Safely

Adolescence is a time of many "firsts," including first kisses. Although it can be awkward to talk about, it's important to have that conversation with your child sooner rather than later. Kissing with food allergies entails an added layer of vigilance and caution to stay safe. Talk to your child about how they cannot randomly kiss or makeout with someone, even if they want to, because they may accidentally expose themselves to their allergen(s). Your child has to communicate their allergy to the person they want to kiss ahead of time and make sure that they have not consumed the allergen in the last several hours. Additionally, I always make sure that when I kiss a new person, they brush their teeth and wash their face ahead of time (especially if they have facial hair) for an added layer of safety. I have a full blog post on dating with food allergies, if you'd like to read more about this.

Tips For College & Postgrad Students

1. Register with the Accessibility or Disability Resource Office

One of the things I wish I did differently in my educational experience is registering at my college's accessibility services office. I never registered at this office because I didn't think my food allergies would qualify as a disability, but I was wrong. I had a very challenging college experience because of the lack of food allergy accommodations and options on my campus but I think that if I had registered with the accessibility office, I may have had a different experience. To get this process started, contact your school's disability resource office, sometimes called accessibility services, and register as a student with a disability. You'll be required to provide proof of your disability, so be prepared to share medical records that verify your food allergies. Once the office approves you, you'll be allowed to have special accommodations for your allergies including potentially a special dining plan, access to safe meals if you are living on campus (many schools have a top-9 free dining section now, so cool!), or an alternative living arrangement if living in the dorms is not suitable for the severity of your allergies. Additionally, your professors will be alerted that you have a special accommodation which can help when having the initial conversation about your food allergies.

2. Communicate Allergies to Professors, On Campus Groups, & Greek Life

Again, it is crucial to communicate your allergies to professors, friends, and any groups or organizations you are a part of. This ensures that everyone knows from the start what you are allergic to and reduces the possibility of you being accidentally exposed to your allergen. In college, I had several instances where professors would surprise us with pizza or other treats that I was allergic to, so I wished that I had told them about my allergies at the start of the year. Also, if you decide to be a part of a fraternity or sorority, food is a major part of that experience. It's important to share your allergy with the executive team of your school's recruitment as well as the organization you end up joining so that everyone can help keep you safe. You can read more about my Greek life experience with food allergies here.

3. Party Safely

Lastly, partying is often a part of high school and college and there are many ways to safely partake in it with severe food allergies. For starters, I researched the liquors and cocktails that contained my allergens so that I knew what to avoid. Then, I found a handful of simple drinks and brands that I trusted so that I had safe alcoholic options to choose from. I would always bring my own alcohol to parties to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction, but in the event that I drank something offered to me, it was always a canned beverage like a beer. Never, ever, ever drink the jungle juice or mystery punch at a party if you have food allergies and also, never do a keg stand or drink from a shared funnel. Stick to your own cup or your own canned beverage to stay safe. Also, make sure that the people you are partying with know about your allergy and come prepared with your medical kit just in case. I have more details on how I stayed safe while partying in college here.

I hope these tips were helpful for navigating back to school for all ages and please let me know in the comments if you have a specific question! I am more than happy to answer. Thanks so much for reading and happy back to school! :)

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