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Lonely at the school peanut allergy lunch table — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have a delightful second grade daughter in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. She happens to have a peanut allergy, which, for the most part, we’ve learned to take in stride. No eating out, lots of cooking from scratch and allegiance to brand names we’ve come to trust. Our extended family and the friends we see frequently have all proven to be eager and reliable about checking ingredients when they bring food to our house or have us over.

The issue is school lunch. Our daughter has a permanent spot at a table with two boys who also have the same restriction about being exposed to peanuts. No other children are allowed to sit with them. Gabby wishes she could have lunch with her girlfriends. I have volunteered several times at school and have seen how forlorn she looks just before, during and on the way back from lunch. Would it be a good idea to arrange a carefully crafted change — purely for social reasons — or should we leave well enough alone?

Sad At Lunch Time

Don’t miss last week’s column Parenting differences on kids’ success and failure — Good Parenting

Dear SALT,

Anaphylactic shock is a serious but manageable issue. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Peanuts are most often the culprit in a food-caused attack, which has given rise to peanuts’ disappearance on many airlines and in some schools. Even with policies and bans in place, parents often request that a child’s teacher as well as a few backup personnel be educated about preventing and responding to an attack. When the allergen presents itself, the body quickly responds with an overflow of histamines and other substances causing hives on the skin and swelling of the lining of the bronchial tube. An EpiPen (epinephrine is a synthetic adrenalin) must be administered within minutes to unblock the airway to avoid brain damage or death.

That being said, it does seem sad to segregate children from their friends at lunch time.

Identify the school employee mostly likely to hear you out — the classroom teacher, the school nurse, the guidance counselor or the principal. If you find these individuals to be unsympathetic and/or inflexible, you could approach the office of special education. Ask about a 504 Plan for your daughter. Section “504” of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provides for accommodations to protect a student’s right to the least restrictive learning environment, including her right to continue breathing. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights U.S., Department of Education formally recognizes “allergy” as a “hidden disability” which warrants providing equal opportunities for a student to the maximum extent possible as their non-disabled peers.

The segregated table indeed protects against contamination, but restricts normal socialization. Chatting with peers about their classwork, their lunches, their families and other out-of-school experiences has tremendous benefit for children.

Here are some scenarios to ask for:

  1. Anyone who buys a lunch can sit with your daughter. Anne Arundel County Public Schools maintains peanut-free kitchens. (This is the easiest option to operationalize.)
  2. Sit with her by invitation. She (and each of the boys, if they wish) can extend an invitation to one student at a time. This child’s parent must consent to their child purchasing lunch that day, or having their child’s lunch scrutinized by a trained staff person or parent volunteer at the peanut-free table.
  3. Have her treat someone for lunch. The invited child shares your daughter’s lunch, which has been packed with double portions.
  4. Friendship pact. Children wishing to sit at the peanut-free table and their parents must attend a workshop about how to prevent allergy contagion. This could be held at your home. Upon successful completion, the friend becomes an “approved” lunch buddy.

While you work on helping your daughter connect with her peers at lunch time, take some time to connect with peers of your own who are facing food allergies.

You will find local support through Donna DeCosta, the Food Allergy Mom Doc. And national support through Food Allergy Talk.

To enlighten other families, here are some books and pamphlets that can be obtained toward this end.

One nice side effect of the rise in food allergies and sensitivities is that we are all becoming more sensitive to the needs of other people around the table.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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