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School and Allergies

Food in the Classroom

Food in the ClassFrom the Allergic Living archives; this popular article was first published in the Canadian edition of the magazine in 2007.

THE PIZZA day. The monthly birthday cake. Treats from the teacher for a job well done. Those holiday celebrations. The dad with the MBA using spreadsheet skills to organize the preschool snack schedule.

The amount of food the average child comes in contact with at the modern school is several times what his 30- or 40-something parent encountered as a pupil. Today’s staples include the pizza-at-school fundraisers, rich and fatty cafeteria food, and school vending machines brimming with oversized beverages and chocolate bars.

Add to the mix the modern child’s obsession with computers, the hours of instant and text messaging time, and results are a shocker: kids across Canada and the United States are more overweight now than at any other time in history.

Between 1978 and 2004, government statistics show that the proportion of overweight Canadian kids aged 6 to 11 doubled to 26 per cent, while the rate of teenagers who were too heavy also doubled – to a whopping 29 per cent. The rate of obese teens tripled to 9 per cent.

Due to weight issues, the federal government stated that, for the first time, this generation of children might not live as long as their parents. In the United States, over the past three decades there has been a doubling of obesity rates for preschoolers and teens, and a tripling for the 6-to-11-year-old group.

“Kids are drinking more sugary drinks, and you have exercise being designed out of their lives,” says Dr. Brian McCrindle, a cardiologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, professor of pediatrics and author of Get a Healthy Weight for Your Child. “Because of safety concerns, they don’t play outside, and you see a proliferation of sedentary pursuits, video and computer.”

As children have grown ever heavier, the concurrent trend, of course, is the skyrocketing of food allergy. A study from Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine in New York, published in 2004, confirmed what allergists knew anecdotally; the incidence of food allergy in the U.S. had doubled, and those statistics are mirrored in Canada. Six to 8 per cent of Canadian school children now have food allergies, which can cause dangerous, even life-threatening reactions. Provinces and states are considering and, in a few cases, passing anaphylaxis-readiness laws in the schools.

But as those bring restrictions on what is appropriate for the lunchbox, simultaneously, the weight issue has grabbed the attention of educators and the media. The result: the pendulum is beginning to swing toward better nutrition in some schools. This means a new focus on fruits and vegetables, which happens to dovetail neatly with concerns about allergens in the class, since those foods are not the top allergenic sources, and they won’t lead to accidental exposures.

The Institute of Medicine, a scientific advisory group based in Washington, produced a report in April, 2007 calling for a dramatic new approach to food in the classroom: no food as rewards; no food for celebrations. Then it ranked foods into tiers. Tier 1 is acceptable: fruits, vegetables, real juice, low-fat dairy, and nothing with trans fat.

These are the only snack foods to be allowed for elementary school children and fundraising efforts, while higher-fat and sugary Tier 2 food could be available for after-school activity for teens. No snack, though, should be more than 200 calories.

Next: Banning the cafeteria fryer

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