Monday, June 27, 2011

Food Allergy Tables at School

by Kelley Lindberg

A frequent question I get from parents of kids just about to enter first grade is “What do we do about school lunch?” One solution that has worked for my son is an “allergy table” in the school cafeteria. I’ve written about this before, but since it’s a perennial question – and an important one – I thought I’d write about it again.

My sixth-grade son has eaten at an "allergy table" since first grade. What's made it great is that his best friend also has allergies, so they both sit at the table together. When the best friend is on vacation or sick, there's another friend whose mom I can call and ask if she'll send a safe lunch with her daughter so her daughter can sit with him. (My son, his allergic best friend, and the non-allergic girl have all been best buds since they were babies.)

I worried about the isolation, but that's never been a problem with him. His friends understand the allergies, and they've never (so far as I know) made any big deal about him sitting apart from them. They all seem to know it's just so he's safe, not that he's anti-social. He has tons of good buddies that he plays with as soon as he's done eating, so no one seems to care that he's not sitting with them for the "food" part of the lunchtime. In fact, the friends sit at the closest “regular” table, so they turn around and talk to each other while eating, anyway.

Here's what's interesting: my son and his allergic buddy are so attached to their table, they've always kind of felt like it was their "club" and anyone who brought a safe lunch to sit with them was cool. Other allergy kids have also sat at the table through the years, so it's been a safe haven for them all.

They've been doing this for 6 years now, and even though they're old enough to try sitting with their trusted friends at another table, they actually aren't interested in doing that.

In fact, my son's friend was out of town for a week last November. So I asked my son if he'd like to try sitting next to some trusted friends at a non-allergy table while his best pal was gone. He said yeah, so we talked about who he would sit with, and that if he didn't feel safe, he could always go back to the allergy table.

The first day, he came home and said it was great, he had a blast with his friends, and everything went well. The next day, he went back to sitting at his allergy table by himself. I asked him why, and he said it was faster (he didn't have to wait for his friends while they stood in line) and he didn't have to worry about anything. So for him, it was just easier and more efficient to have his own table, and it reduced the stress of something unfamiliar, even though there hadn't been any problem the day before.

He wolfs down his food in minutes and hits the playground with his buddies fast anyway, so the eating part is really the least important part of lunch, he says.

I think both boys have really come to rely on the safety of that table. It eliminates all stress from the eating part of the day, and because they have each other, they don't feel isolated. But even when they're not together at the table, they don't seem to feel isolated, because their other buddies still like them and play with them.

So.... this is a long way of saying that the lunch table may look isolating to us grown-ups, but it might NOT feel that way to your child. If you’re contemplating asking your school if your child can sit at an allergy table, I think the main thing is to find a friend or two or three who would be willing to bring a "safe" lunch to school once or twice a week to sit with him/her. Maybe you could talk to the moms, explain the situation, and see if their kid would be willing to be your child's lunch buddy on Mondays, for example. And find another one for Tuesday, etc.

Change is always difficult, and the transition to all-day school is always scary, but it might not be as bad as you think. I guess a lot of it is just in the mental preparation and how you approach it. My son and his friend approach it like a "club" and they've had friends over the years who've asked if they could bring a safe lunch to sit with them. That's pretty special, not isolating.

As for the logistical details – the lunch staff uses signs to designate the allergy table, and they use a separate bucket of cleaning solution and separate rag just for this table. The boys actually sit at a split table -- one side of it is nut-free, and the other side is nut- and milk-free (also egg-free, but we find that eliminating milk eliminates most egg-containing products, too). The split table is because there are nut-allergic kids who get school lunch and drink milk, so they need a safe place, too. And they tend to be VERY careful with all food, knowing that the kids at the other side of the table are allergic to different foods. It's worked fine, and they've never had a problem (knock on wood). So I made two signs, one that says “No Nuts or Peanuts” and one that says “No Nuts or Milk.” I print the signs on card stock, then laminate them. Then the cafeteria staff tapes each sign to the appropriate side of the table, and they stay there.

The boys also know if someone tries to sit at the table with unsafe foods, they can either explain the situation to the confused kid, or go get a lunchroom staff member to remove the kid. It’s worked well for six years.

So if you’re contemplating an allergy table at your child’s school, I hope our positive experience helps. But remember that there are a lot of other parents and kids who’ve chosen NOT to sit at an allergy table, and they’ve had great success, too. So it’s really up to what you and your child want and feel comfortable with. Let your own comfort level be your guide.

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