Navigating School Lunch with Food Allergies (part 1)

Each May there is a week dedicated to increasing awareness of food allergies. This dedicated week serves as a reminder and an opportunity for schools and child nutrition professionals to re-emphasize the importance of understanding and managing food allergies, ultimately creating a safer and more inclusive environment for all students.

For those who have been lucky enough to never have dealt with a food allergy or are unfamiliar with food allergies, it is likely that you may not understand how dangerous food allergens can be to a person with an allergy. For a child living with a food allergy, it is like having an invisible disability. It can be very exhausting at times trying to find safe foods to eat while obtaining proper nutrition, especially for parents.

Food Allergy Facts

There are currently more than six million children with food allergies across the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers just keep growing! Between the years 1997 and 2011, food allergies in kids increased by 50%. Roughly 15% of school-aged children with food allergies have had reactions while at school.

The USDA reports that 90% of all allergies are caused by the following most common food allergens:

  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Tree Nuts
  • Wheat

Some of the above most common allergens need a bit of explaining. You might be wondering, “What’s the difference between a peanut and a tree nut?” Peanuts, which cause the most dangerous and severe allergic reactions, are technically considered “legumes.” Tree nuts, on the other hand, include almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts and more.

Another item possibly causing confusion could be fish. It’s in the word “shellfish” so what’s the difference? Fish refers to all finned fish whereas shellfish are crustaceans (crab, lobster) and mollusks (clams, mussels and oysters). A shellfish allergy is not something people typically outgrow.

A milk allergy is one that often gets mixed up as many people associate it with lactose intolerance, which is the inability to break down the milk sugar lactose. However, the two are very different. When a person has a milk allergy, they are allergic to the proteins found in milk (casein, whey).

Wheat is another allergen that can cause confusion. A true wheat allergy is when a person has an allergic reaction to gluten, albumin, globulin or gliadin – the four proteins found in wheat. This is not to be confused with Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune disease. When a person with Celiac consumes gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), it destroys the microvilli lining the inside of their intestine. If a person continues to eat gluten, the chronic inflammation can lead to malnourishment and more serious health issues.

Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance

Food Allergy

What exactly is a food allergy and how does it differ from an intolerance or sensitivity? When a person has a food allergy, their body reacts to that food item as if it were an extremely harmful substance. The reactions could vary between mild to life threatening.

Warning signs from a food allergic reaction range from a variety of symptoms including: rashes or hives on the skin, a swollen tongue, difficulty breathing, itchy mouth and throat, cramping, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, a drop in blood pressure, rapid pulse, loss of consciousness, anaphylaxis, and/or even death. Because of this, most kids with food allergies carry an epi pen (a shot of epinephrine) to counteract an allergic reaction if one should occur.

Food Intolerance

An intolerance, on the other hand, is different from an allergy as the reaction takes place in the digestive system instead of involving the immune system. People with food intolerances are unable to properly break down a certain food(s). It could be from an enzyme deficiency (such as lactose intolerance – where a person lacks lactase – an enzyme that breaks down sugar in dairy), or a sensitivity to food additives (such as dyes), or even a reaction to certain chemicals in foods (like caffeine).

People with food intolerances don’t suffer the same allergic reaction as those with food allergies. Food intolerance symptoms don’t appear as quickly as allergic reactions but they are milder: headaches or migraines, cough, runny nose, bloating, stomach ache, and other irritable bowel issues.

Food Allergy Regulations

We’ve all seen allergen-free foods pop up on the shelves of grocery stores. We’ve observed the menus of our favorite restaurants upgraded to offer foods for those on restrictive diets. USDA has specific guidance on how to manage students with special dietary needs in the schools.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been amended to include food allergies and intolerances as a “disability.” This was much needed for the 2.8 million children reported to have a disability in 2010. The ADA is protected by the Rehabilitation Act – a policy that forbids discrimination of disabilities in government programs funded by federal assistance. This means that schools have to provide food options for kids with food allergies or intolerances in all of their school meal programs – at no extra cost.

Nutrition Experts at Your Service

With food allergies and intolerances on the rise, a school system needs to have a game plan in place on how to handle allergic reactions in addition to offering allergen free foods for their students. This is where My K12 Resource can help!

With our Registered Dietitians on staff, we can help you navigate through special diet management and create approved menus with our expert school nutrition consulting services. We can even help educate your food service workers about food allergies and train them how to read food labels to ensure the safety of all students in the lunchroom!

Let’s chat! Reach out and we can set up a time to discuss how we can assist you.