Monday, May 19, 2008

Getting Creative with School Substitutions

Last night, I was up ‘til midnight making chocolate bars. My son’s science teacher decided that since it was finally going to be sunny today (is spring finally here?), she wanted to make solar-powered mini ovens and let the kids make Solar S’mores. So she asked my friend Kim (mother of my son’s best friend) if she could get safe supplies. Kim handled the graham crackers and marshmallows, and I handled the chocolate bars.

Fortunately, Hershey’s developed a recipe for their Special Dark Chocolate Bark for people who are allergic to milk. We’ve made it and used it before in S’mores, and it works wonderfully. (See below for the recipe.)

At the beginning of every school year, Kim and I tell the teachers that we can find safe substitutes (milk-, egg-, and nut-free) for just about anything they ever need for any classroom activity, treat, project, or celebration. Most of the time, the substitutions are pretty easy – to make gingerbread houses, we used safe graham crackers, safe frosting, safe gumdrops, and other safe candies. You want to have hot dogs? We can find safe hot dogs and buns. Candy for a candy cannon? We’re all over that, with Starbursts and Skittles. Need safe paella for the third grade program – just use chicken instead of crab, and Swanson’s chicken broth instead of bullion cubes, and we’re good to go!

Every once in a while, we get to really stretch our creativity. A couple of weeks ago, a teacher asked us what to use instead of taffy to demonstrate metamorphic rocks. You should have been listening to the phone conversation between me and Kim. “Well, what exactly will the kids be doing to show metamorphic rock? Are they compressing it under heat? Are they changing its form from granular to crystal? Are they stretching it or folding it? Are they showing layers or texture?” We sounded pretty darn scientific. And we probably over-thought it, by a long shot.

But we came up with a bunch of different ideas for the teacher, from the putty you use to stick posters to the wall, to marshmallows, to slime. It turns out she just wanted the kids to stretch the stuff, so she went with our idea that most resembled her original request of taffy – Airheads candy.

We’re proud to say that in 4 years of school, we’ve yet to be stumped by a teacher’s request. When we can, we try to steer the teachers away from food products at all (instead of piñata candy, I found small toys and some old Mexican coins that the kids loved), just because we want to see less candy in schools as a general rule that has little to do with food allergies and more to do with healthy overall eating habits. But when food is really called for, we can supply that, too.

Sometimes it feels like a hassle, but it’s worth it to keep our kids (and other allergic kids) safe, and worth it to teach the teachers that there really are safe substitutions for all their favorite classroom activities.

And I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to be challenged to think in new ways. There’s something refreshingly creative about spending a few minutes brainstorming crazy ideas about what metamorphic rocks and Airheads have in common.

By the way, here is the recipe for the chocolate bark, from Hershey’s and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN):

Hershey’s Special Dark Bark
Milk-free, Egg-free, Wheat-free, Peanut-free, Soy-free, Nut-free

1 (8-oz.) package of Hershey’s Unsweetened Baking Chocolate, broken into pieces
1/4 cup plus 1 tsp. shortening
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners sugar

Grease 9x9-inch pan. Set aside. In medium bowl, microwave chocolate and shortening on high for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until mixture is melted and smooth when stirred. Add vanilla extract. Gradually stir in sugar. If mixture becomes too thick, knead with clean hands. Spread out in prepared pan. Cover tightly. Refrigerate until firm. Break into pieces. Store, well covered, in refrigerator.

Note: After changing the formulation on its Special Dark chocolate bar to include milk, Hershey’s developed this recipe for milk-allergic consumers.

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