May is peak time for seasonal allergies, so it’s also a great time to learn more about how food allergies affect children and the critical role schools play in keeping children who suffer from them safe at school. Understanding food allergies and identifying allergic reactions could even help save lives, which is why the Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has designated it as “National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month.”
A food allergy is a condition in which the immune system reacts abnormally to a component of a food. Symptoms can range from mild reactions, such as hives or stomach cramps, to life-threatening anaphylaxis, characterized by difficulty breathing and fainting from low blood pressure. It’s important to note that ninety percent of food allergies are caused by just eight foods: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for food allergies. The best preventative strategy is to strictly avoid the foods that are allergens. And to ensure their safety, children with known food allergies must also have epinephrine available to them at all times to treat anaphylaxis.
Food allergies represent a growing health concern. It is estimated that six million children, or eight percent of the child population, have food allergies. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that these numbers are on the rise – increasing 50 percent between 1997 and 2011!
Schools play a major role in helping children manage their allergies. More than 15 percent of school-aged children with food allergies have had a reaction in school, and approximately 20-25 percent of epinephrine administrations in schools were for children whose allergies were unknown at the time of the reaction. For this reason, schools have to be proactive about allergy management and know what to do in an allergy emergency.
Managing food allergies in a busy school environment can be challenging. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Food Safety provides school nutrition professionals with training resources to better understand food allergies, identify reactions and respond to emergencies. These resources help school nutrition professionals communicate the importance of allergy management and response activities to the entire school environment.
The Institute for Child Nutrition (ICN) at the University of Mississippi is funded by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. It serves as a trusted source of low- or no-cost, accurate and reliable information for child nutrition professionals. ICN’s face-to-face course, “Managing Food Allergies in Schools,” is one of their most popular offerings. The course teaches the basics of food allergies, describes the major food allergens in detail and instructs personnel on preparing safe meals for children with food allergies.
The Office of Food Safety has also partnered with Healthy Futures at the National Education Association to produce a very popular resource titled, “The Food Allergy Book: What School Employees Need to Know.” The small booklet describes allergies in easy-to-understand terms and gives examples of how school employees can help students in situations where they may be experiencing an allergic reaction.
More information about these resources can be found on the Office of Food Safety’s website: https://www.fns.usda.gov/ofs/food-safety, with several of the resources available in Spanish.
Scientists are working tirelessly to find a cure for food allergies. Until then, schools must be extremely cautious protecting students with food allergies while ensuring they are supported and included in everyday school activities. The Office of Food Safety and its’ partners continue to develop resources to meet the specific needs of school nutrition professionals.