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School and Allergies

Food in the Classroom

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“We really had to stick to our guns around fruits and vegetables,” he says. “We explained to them that we were looking for healthier snacks.”

With the advent of Sabrina’s Law, which accommodates children at risk of anaphylaxis, St. Basil has gone even further with allergy protocols. In all grades, birthday parties now don’t include food but games. No food is allowed in the playgrounds, as it adds risk for food allergic children and attracts bees (another anaphylaxis risk).

The fruits and vegetables message has spread to École Saint-Clément in the Town of Mount Royal, located on the island of Montreal. Dr. Valérie Marchand has two daughters enrolled there, both of whom have multiple food allergies. The school is trying to improve nutrition and protect those with food allergies. Every Tuesday and Thursday, students must bring fruit and vegetable snacks only.

“It’s not as easy as buying a quick snack at the store, but it’s healthier, and better for children with allergies,” says Marchand, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Montreal’s Ste-Justine Hospital, who often sees infants with failure to thrive, sometimes due to food allergies.

But while anaphylaxis awareness in the schools has grown considerably, the pace of change on its nutrition counterpart is slower. And there’s a good reason: schools today have embraced foods, many of them unhealthy, for fundraising and as classroom rewards. Changing that dependence is a big undertaking.

Consider the experience of Kari Gregory. She spent 10 years as an Alberta junior high and high school teacher and found food a common incentive in the classroom. “I don’t like the whole rewards thing; students need to do their best work because it teaches them to be accountable,” says Gregory, who left teaching to care for four young daughters. (She now works as a personal trainer.)

When she taught, she’d bring in a big bag of fruit. “Often kids would ask me for a fruit. One might be hungry or another forgot his lunch.” She knows teachers, even excellent ones, who still give out surgary treats. “I think teachers are lost about what to give as rewards. It’s cheaper to buy a tub of $3 jelly beans, than other more nutritious snacks.”

Raising school funds with
sugary treats is another
controversial issue.

Then there are the fundraisers at her daughters’ school: pizza days, taco days, and subway sandwich days, all to raise funds for the parents’ advisory council. More fundraising is a fact of life in many public schools. In Calgary, Roman Catholic Bishop Fred Henry banned the high-earning casinos, so the Catholic schools in that city have turned now to food as one of several fundraising tools. This is still common.

Kate Caldwell is a teacher in Cobourg, Ontario. She has qualms about certain fundraising practices, but takes a different view on food in the class: “I see school celebrations as a teaching moment.” She works in the same school as her 6-year-old daughter, who is food allergic and asthmatic.

In a supervised setting with the practice of washing hands well-established, Caldwell says that food allergic children and their friends can learn how to manage food allergies. “Otherwise time will fly by and other kids won’t know how to handle situations where food allergies are present,” she says.

Next: For principals, a complex landscape

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.