Call me Mrs. H. I am a Stay at Home Mom in an midsize, midwest town. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, and I have a 12 year old son, a 9 year old son, and a 5 year old daughter. They are 6th grade, 3rd grade and Kindergarten, respectively.
Food allergies have been steadily increasing in children over the past few decades. Although most food allergies cause relatively mild and minor symptoms, some food allergies can cause severe reactions, and may even be life-threatening.
According to the CDC, eight types of food account for over 90% of allergic reactions in affected individuals. These foods are, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. A study done in 2007 showed that in approximately 3 million children under age 18 years (3.9%) were reported to have a food or digestive allergy in the previous 12 months. This was an increase of 18% from 1997 to 2007. From 2004 to 2006, there were approximately 9,500 hospital discharges per year with a diagnosis related to food allergy among children under age 18 years. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db10.pdf
My introduction to food allergies began when my first son was 18 months old. We discovered that a severe allergy to milk was causing chronic respiratory problems, and after a switch to a soy milk, these problems disappeared. Though he outgrew the milk allergy, 9 years later he had a severe reaction to popcorn shrimp that we had for dinner one night. Further testing revealed a severe shellfish allergy. I was introduced once again to the world of epi-pens, diet modification, and worry that he would ingest something harmful. However, I found some relief that none of these items ( shrimp, crab, lobster, crawfish ) were things typically found in school cafeteria menus, and no one brings crab cakes to celebrate birthdays.
My middle son often complained that his throat would “feel funny” after trying new foods. After a few times of chalking it up to not wanting to trying new things, we decided to have allergy testing done. After testing for 64 allergens, we found he is allergic to some tree nuts, including walnuts, pecans and almonds. An allergy to almonds is often associated with allergies to stony fruits, such as peaches, plums, nectarines and pitted cherries, as well as apples and pears. My son reacted to all fruits with “pits”, and he is irritated by pears and apples if they are not peeled. In addition, he is allergic to soy. Peanuts are considered a legume, not a tree nut, and thankfully
these don’t bother him.
Though these results are relatively new to us, they have opened my eyes to new diligence when avoiding these foods. After researching common places these allergens are found, I then turned to our school lunch menu to see how often any of those items were offered. Typically, I let my boys buy lunch weekly, when pizza is offered from an outside restaurant. During the rest of the week we try and pack a healthy lunch. Imagine my surprise when I realized that in April, 11 out of the 16 days we have school, peaches, pears, apricots or fruit cocktail ( a mix of peaches, pears, apples and cherries! ) were offered as a fruit choice. Two of the other days, fruit was offered in the form of applesauce, one day as blueberry crisp, one as peach cobbler. Only one day was fresh fruit offered, in the form of apple slices. I assume that these fruits are so prevalent because they are served canned or pre-packaged in some way. The ease of serving has great appeal over preparation of fresh fruit. While I cannot expect an entire menu to change because of one child, my concern is for those children in all districts who rely on school lunches as a large ( or only ) source of food for the day. If their parents are not aware or interested in what is being served, those with allergies and other conditions like Diabetes are at a higher risk of serious health repercussions from an unsupervised diet.
A few days ago, I contacted the school district’s director of food services. She was very knowledgeable, and I learned a lot from talking to her. She explained to me that the district is not required by state to provide specific alternatives to children based in dietary need or allergies. She did share that the schools do not serve any food that obviously contain tree nuts or peanuts in the elementary schools. They cannot claim to be a nut free facility, as some of their sources of product do come from factories that may also process nuts. I asked her if there was an ingredient list available for parents to look at, and she replied that the list she had available was over 600 pages long!
After some discussion, I offered my help to increase awareness of allergies and other similar conditions in the community. At this point, our goal is to review all 600 pages of ingredients in the school lunch menu, and provide nutritional information as part of the school district’s website. This way, parents and students would have quick, easy to read information available to make informed decisions about what students are eating everyday. My hope is initially to reach those with food allergies, and also those with conditions like Celiac Disease and Diabetes. Perhaps then we can move on to the calorie counts and other nutritional information to help create change in what we offer children, as well as give parents the tools they need to make healthier decisions with their child’s lunch.
*** Mrs. Q: Thanks so much to Mrs. H for giving us some insight into food allergies! ***