The Food Allergy Parent’s #1 Back-to-School Tool: Educate, Educate, Educate!
by Alison Grace Johansen
If you’re a food allergy parent like me, you’re undoubtedly in full back-to-school preparation mode. You’ve probably been planning for quite a while now. Whether we’ve already had meetings with the school or are preparing for them, we’re in the zone and gathering all of our resources to be the best advocates for our kids.
The big questions in my heart are: Have I done enough? Am I prepared? What tools do I still need? In a world where we are blasted with different forms of information every day, knowledge is power. Education is key. Over the years I’ve compiled several tools in my food allergy parent’s toolkit when preparing for school. I call them my “AEIOUs” of food allergy management: awareness, education, inclusion, outreach and understanding.
It all revolves around education, doesn’t it? Education is the real lynchpin. There are key things I do related to educating friends, teachers and others at my children’s school (both before school starts and then during riskier times throughout the year like Valentine’s Day) that I know will help other food allergy mamas and papas (and grandparents and caregivers!) like me when heading back to school and preparing for things that pop up.
Because let’s be honest with ourselves: issues inevitably pop up. While we can and should try to cover all of our bases, we can’t always predict everything.
“A” Is for Awareness
Awareness is crucial, isn’t it? Food allergy awareness and educating ourselves about everything related to food allergies is key.
One thing I’ve learned is that while we are so focused on making sure others in our circle are aware, we mustn’t forget about ensuring the awareness of our most precious ones: our children with food allergies. Most importantly, we must not only show them they aren’t alone but also ensure that they truly feel they aren’t alone.
Whenever I read my children’s book HumFree the Bee Has a Food Allergy in the classroom, I end by sharing HumFree’s “AEIOUs” of food allergy management in the back of the book. There are facts that always pique the children’s interest. I always ask them for their thoughts on how many children in the United States have food allergies. They truly are astounded that 15 million Americans—including 5.9 million kids—have food allergies (as am I). It really gets us all thinking and realizing how important awareness is.
“E” Is for Education
As I’m sure you all do, I spend at least some part of each day researching and educating myself on the latest food allergy facts, recalls and other news so I can educate myself and others. So, I’m at the ready. The big question I know many of us face is how and when to educate others.
With regard to school, I print off fact pages (from a source like FAACT to show it isn’t just me providing the information) about my children’s allergies, what they need to avoid, ingredients that may not be obvious, supplies that aren’t safe, and what to do if allergic symptoms are seen. I give the teacher these papers when we meet before school starts so she or he can refer to them as needed and also keep them on file for substitute teachers. After all, let’s face it: teachers are swamped. If the facts are right in our child’s folder, it’s an easy reference and just one more step closer toward keeping our children safe.
I also ask my child’s allergist to write a letter detailing the actions and precautions that are key for keeping my child safe in the classroom.
Another helpful step has been to ask the prior year’s teacher to sit in on our meeting. If your child is starting kindergarten, what I’ve done is asked the preschool teacher (or any caregiver if they haven’t attended preschool) to write a letter describing the steps they’ve taken to keep my child safe. Essentially, it’s a practical guide for showing what worked – and what did not work.
Whether it’s writing a story or explaining something like food allergies to those who don’t have them, showing always trumps telling, doesn’t it? Showing what has worked or what has caused reactions – and what those reactions look like -- crosses that bridge into reality. Doing as much work for others in terms of educating and sharing facts about what works can save everyone a lot of time and energy down the road – and save our children.
“I” Is for Inclusion
Inclusion is so important for our children with food allergies – and for all children. I truly believe that greater education about safe foods, supplies, products and activities ahead of time can make all the difference and help ensure activities and events are safe so everyone can participate.
For example, have you heard about the infamous chick experiment that many elementary school students “get” to do? They incubate eggs for about a month in their classroom and then watch the chicks hatch and parade through the school. Yikes for children with egg allergies. For me, not even getting into questions about animal cruelty and how many of those chicks survive, I researched about how the chicks aren’t washed at birth because the inside of the egg serves as a protective coating. What about alternatives that provide the same – or even more – education, such as studying tadpoles or caterpillars? Why not study something that’s safe for everyone? If you’re able to talk about things well in advance and before supplies are purchased, it saves not only us food allergy mamas and papas a lot of stress, but also the teachers and school time and money.
Class parties are another key topic in back-to-school meetings. While some schools have done away with class parties with food, for those that still have them, sharing with teachers what food is safe – ahead of time – can save everyone stress. Offer a list of safe foods and drinks. Or better yet, be a room parent and arrange it so you get the food to help guard against any last-minute surprises. Most parents would be happy to turn over the reins.
My motto for anything in life with regard to activities and inclusion is this: Everyone should be able to participate on every level. There are so many safe activities, foods and crafts at our fingertips! With websites and Pinterest pages devoted to safe options, even less crafty mamas like me can find super fun and safe activities.
“O” Is for Outreach
Outreach is a big one. It has such potential. We food allergy parents have enough on our plates, right? But the truth is that if each of us finds a way to use our own unique talents and tools to reach out to make our own little corner safer for everyone, the impact is immeasurable.
This is one of the many reasons I wrote HumFree the Bee Has a Food Allergy for our children. Writing is what I do; it’s how I communicate best. Of course, when I wrote the story I was doing it for myself. I was tired and frustrated on my lunch break at work one day. We couldn’t do classes because we kept having reactions. Writing is the way I feel better, so I wrote HumFree’s story in one sitting. The emotions just poured out.
What I didn’t realize at the time is how many children would love HumFree and share his story with their parents, friends, classrooms and libraries. Books are a fun, easy and tangible way for us and our children to spread awareness to those who are in their inner circle of care, their classmates and their teachers. HumFree helps to show children – and all of us – that if we take certain steps, we can help keep ourselves and our friends safe and have fun together.
With HumFree, I keep experiencing firsts that are so rewarding. For example, this was the first time during Food Allergy Awareness Week that friends’ children shared HumFree in their classrooms. Seeing the videos and listening to these young and inspiring food allergy heroes read HumFree’s story and spread awareness—and witnessing their friends’ reactions—really warmed my heart. Oh, how important outreach is—especially by our children. What an impact!
Whether it’s making t-shirts or designing jewelry or writing books or speaking at conferences or creating new recipes or heading up a local support group or talking with our friends and schools, every step forward truly makes a difference. It’s like the drop of water in a pond that makes a bigger and bigger circle. Just imagine hundreds or thousands of drops in the pool. We can’t help but make a meaningful impact, right?
“U” Is for Understanding
Of course, all of these actions promote greater understanding, and that’s really what it’s all about. The foundation for all of this is greater education—which promotes greater awareness, greater understanding, and ultimately inclusion and safety.
As I approach each new year, the mantra “Educate, Educate, Educate!” rings through my head. Educate myself. Educate my kids. Educate my husband. Educate my family. Educate my friends. Educate our teachers. Step by step. It’s that drop in the pond that creates a ripple effect that reaches out, includes and continues to educate.
In a similar vein, when FAACT reached out about sharing a post this summer, I was so grateful and couldn’t think of a better way to spread awareness than with an organization whose backbone is education. When you all get your papers ready and head back to school, make sure you print off FAACT’s fact sheets and share them. I truly believe it will make a difference for you and your school.
Here’s to another great year for all of us, filled with education, safety, inclusion and many happy milestones!
About the Author
Alison Grace Johansen was a journalist in Washington, D.C., for over a decade before founding the website Mothernova, where she shares her journey into motherhood, food allergies and other topics close to her heart. Alison is the author of HumFree the Bee Has a Food Allergy, a children’s picture book that she hopes will give children with food allergies – and all children – a tangible message of hope that if we take necessary safety steps, we can do what we love while being safe with the help of our family and friends. Alison also has a CD of HumFree the Bee’s Food Allergy Song so children can sing along with the book!