When today's parents were growing up, food sensitivities were more about choosing chocolate or rainbow sprinkles than about serious health decisions. The dietary landscape is more complicated now. Peanut allergies in children rose threefold between 1997 and 2010, according to a 2010 study by food allergists at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. And research shows that celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, is four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. Add cultural and religious dietary restrictions to the mix, and food issues get even trickier.
Food allergies don't just pose risks to the body; they can be also be emotionally taxing. Vicki Nelson, a K-5 school counselor at Charlotte Central School, helps students develop social and psychological skills to deal with food allergies. That includes understanding and respecting their classmates' dietary needs, and their own.
Nelson has a unique perspective on that challenge: Her 7-year-old daughter, Josie, has celiac. This month, she offers a menu of tips for dealing with dietary limitations, at school and at home.
KIDS VT: How serious is your daughter's sensitivity?
VICKI NELSON: Josie doesn't have her own lunch table, like her classmates with peanut allergies. She just has to be really aware of her surroundings and the potential for cross-contamination. Even microscopic traces of gluten can really affect her. We can't cook her pasta in the same pot we use and have to wash our hands well after we touch bread.
KVT: Why do such restrictions become emotionally difficult for kids?
VN: Imagine what it's like, every day, to not have the same food choices as other kids. For example, if a class has a birthday treat, sometimes the expectation for kids with food sensitivities is just to provide them with a separate treat. If you put yourself in those kids' shoes, and that happens to them over and over again, it has an impact. They already feel different.
KVT: What advice do you give parents when those kids start school?
VN: If parents don't feel like they have an ally in the school, they have to navigate it by themselves. Some parents apologize for asking for an accommodation for their child, but as I always tell them: You are your child's best advocate. We can help your child build skills around their own advocacy and assertiveness. But parents should build a partnership with their child's school and identify an ally, whether it's an administrator, school counselor, teacher, school nurse or cafeteria supervisor.
KVT: What does that mean in practical terms?
VN: My child's teacher had several food allergies in her classroom, including peanuts, dairy and gluten. That's a lot for her to juggle. Everyone knows that teachers work really hard and can't manage everything, so they need support, too. What my daughter's teacher and teaching partner did was put a letter together for families about the norms around food and how we treat classroom celebrations. It's really hard for a teacher when a parent shows up at 8 a.m. with 25 cupcakes and the teacher isn't expecting it. If it's not OK for all the kids to eat one, then the teacher is stuck with the burden of telling that parent who just made 25 beautifully ornate cupcakes, "I'm sorry. The kids can't eat these." That can be completely stressful — for the teacher and the child.
KVT: What do you recommend?
VN: My daughter's school community has been very supportive of Josie and other kids with food allergies. They ask questions about what they can do and how to make it safe for her. She has a lot of gluten-free allies, and that normalizes it for her, because sometimes she's embarrassed to say, "Is that gluten-free?" or "I can't have that." I really appreciate Josie's teacher specifically telling parents, "These are the foods that are safe for food celebrations." And, "Here are other ways we can celebrate kids' birthdays that aren't necessarily food-centered."
KVT: Such as?
VN: Have your child bring in a recording of his or her favorite song and have the entire class dance to it. Your child can bring in his or her favorite book, or ask the other students questions about that child's favorite things. For the last two years, my son, who doesn't have food allergies, has opted to write down questions about himself corresponding to how old he is. So, when he turned 9, we wrote down nine questions about him, and his friends had three guesses to answer them. The students learn more about him, and it's celebrating who he is rather than just eating. That was also easier for me, and the teacher said the kids loved it.
KVT: Should parents and teachers teach other kids about their classmates' dietary restrictions?
VN: In kindergarten, Josie had a book called Eating Gluten-Free With Emily, about a little girl who's diagnosed with celiac. When she was 5 years old I asked her, "Would you like to read this to the class?" She said yes. My next question was, "Do you want me to read it or your teacher?" The reason my answers are so personal here is, you don't know where kids are with their dietary needs — if they struggle with that food sensitivity or are embarrassed by it. Some kids shut down and don't say anything. As adults, we often talk for our children and at our children. Starting very young, they need to be part of that conversation. And it's going to change over time.