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Gina Clowes: Parenting Coach

Help the School ‘Get’ Food Allergies

What would you do if your child were asked to rinse out his mouth twice a day before entering his classroom? No, this isn’t a trick question or a bad joke.

Here’s what parents of students at a Volusia County, Florida elementary school did in March 2011 when they were told that their kids would have to make this accommodation to ensure the safety of a first grader with a peanut allergy: they protested. They literally picketed, handed out flyers and called the media.

The uproar affected me deeply because a similar controversy brewed in my district several years ago – and it involved my son.

Before Daniel’s first day of kindergarten, I developed a plan with school administrators to keep him safe from his allergens. Although we made every effort to keep the impact on other students to a minimum, some parents saw the restrictions on certain foods in the classroom as an infringement on their rights. In fact, one mom was so miffed that she rallied a group of parents and they protested at several local school-board meetings, inviting the media.

School administrators went to battle for me, and in the end, not a single word of my son’s plan was changed.

Since that time, I have worked with thousands of allergy parents navigating the school system, trying to help others “get” food allergies. Here’s what I’ve found works – and what doesn’t.

Tell the truth. Never exaggerate. A significant portion of people still don’t believe that food allergies are real. When we say things like, “If she touches it, she will die,” it lessens our credibility. If the truth is, “If she ingests even a trace amount of this food, she could die without proper treatment,” then say that. The truth is frightening enough.

Be meticulous with your words and language. When we use analogies like the “loaded gun,” we may be written off as anxious or crazy. Most people simply cannot compare a sip of milk or a bite of a cookie to a loaded gun. It doesn’t matter if we’re right. It matters that they can hear us.

Share a story. I tried for years to explain food allergies to my sisters. But it wasn’t until I shared Sabrina Shannon’s story through her radio documentary “A Nutty Tale” that they truly understood. One sister called me immediately afterwards and said, “Oh my God. So this is what you are dealing with.”

Sabrina died from an allergic reaction to a trace amount of dairy on French fries served in her school cafeteria. There is no argument with this story. And every parent on some level can relate to the fear of losing a child.

Next page: On the same page with school officials