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School and Allergies, Asthma

Milk Allergy in the School

Glover cupcakesLynne Glover works on the 560 cupcakes.

For the Canadian article, click here.

Allergic Living magazine’s investigation of the most misunderstood food allergen, and how we can protect kids from dairy pervasiveness in the school system.

LYNNE GLOVER breathed a sigh of relief as she piped icing onto the last of 560 allergy-safe cupcakes for a special event at her daughter’s school. Running back and forth between two ovens, Glover* and another parent had spent the past two full days at school baking. All the work was to allow her daughter Elodie, 6, to participate despite her severe allergies to dairy and eggs. Though other occasions hadn’t proved dairy-safe, this time would be different, vowed the Canadian mother. But all her hard work was rendered irrelevant when milk cartons were handed out to all the children.

The last straw for Glover came when Elodie was dismissed from school with breathing issues: one day after the teacher ate microwaved popcorn and students snacked on Doritos in her class, and another day after students nearby had been eating chips – all the products were coated in dairy-based powder.

Lynne Glover and Elodie close upLynne Glover with Elodie.

In October 2013, she pulled Elodie out of school (she is still enrolled), and filed a complaint against the school board with the province of Ontario’s human rights tribunal, seeking an accommodation plan for her child.

Feeling you have to keep your child out of school over food allergies is an extreme situation, but Harriet Spitzer-Picker, a certified asthma educator in New York City, can relate to Glover’s frustrations. She’s the mother of two boys who have multiple allergies, including dairy, and asthma. Her younger son, 7-year-old Joshua, has had severe reactions, and the allergist has warned her against taking the child into coffee shops, since the volume of steaming of milk in the air might elicit a reaction.

The first school issue arose when Joshua entered pre-kindergarten. To reduce exposure risks, Spitzer-Picker offered to collect money and handle the purchasing of daily safe snacks for the entire class. It appeared everyone was on board, but almost immediately dairy-based snacks from home popped up in little hands. “The parents said they wanted their child to ‘feel special with their own snack,’” says Spitzer-Picker. “But I don’t care if your child feels special. We’re talking about my child’s life!”

After several worrisome incidents, including one in which Joshua arrived home with hives all over his mouth following a school party where Doritos were served, Spitzer-Picker moved both boys to a new public school district where staff were willing to work with her and acknowledge dairy as a true allergy concern.

Sending a child off to school with food allergies is always nerve-racking, but dairy allergy presents greater issues than most. Reducing the presence of milk is controversial; it’s one of the most revered and protected foods in the American diet, and it’s ubiquitous in our food supply. From the ‘good for you’ image of milk and yogurt to festivities centered on pizza and ice cream, the mere suggestion of an event without dairy can result in dramatic backlash.

Dairy also poses a high exposure risk. It is conveniently packaged in a multitude of ways for kid-friendly lunch boxes, but once opened, the residues are far from contained. Spilled liquids and powdered cheese from snack foods can easily spread, and may not be properly cleaned up. Yogurt, meantime, is easily smeared onto clothes and tables where it awaits your child’s touch.

Often confused with lactose intolerance and plagued by the myth that it’s always outgrown after infancy, dairy allergy is also one of the most misconstrued allergic conditions. Glover, who has some teacher assistance with Elodie’s lessons from home, says: “At her school, they’re not understanding that dairy can kill.”

Kelly Rudnicki, who resides in San Clemente, California, regularly encounters well-meaning adults who suggest a Lactaid will allow her child to safely enjoy an ice cream sundae. Rudnicki’s son John, 11, contends with multiple allergies that include peanut and tree nuts, but milk allergy is by far this mother of five’s biggest concern. At least once in every school year, something with dairy has crossed John’s path: from the “plain” popcorn served for a Spanish event that the teacher and school nurse incorrectly assumed was dairy-free to an in-class picnic lunch that forced him to eat in the hallway.

kelly rudnickiKelly Rudnicki with sons John (right) and Matthew.

“The most misunderstanding I get is with milk allergy,” says Rudnicki. “You want every allergen to be taken as seriously as peanut, but if it isn’t a peanut or nut allergy, it’s not getting respect.”

She feels there is a real societal disconnect in terms of what a dairy allergy means and what foods may contain dairy, including chips, bagels and cookies, coupled with a general unwillingness to learn. She has witnessed outrage at the mere suggestion of withholding snacks like Goldfish crackers from a child’s lunch box.

Nonetheless, Rudnicki has had success getting more than one school to understand the dairy issue with the use of federal 504 plans, which afford civil rights protections to students with various medical conditions. Under her son’s 504 plan, she is given a 48-hour notice before any school activity involving food, with the power to make changes as needed to ensure her son can be safely included. For five years now, Rudnicki has been able to request and receive a dairy-free classroom for her son.

Gina Mennett Lee, a milk allergy mom and former school teacher, was able to expand her reach even farther. After working with the board of education and principals in her Connecticut district for four years, her victory arrived this year when the entire school district implemented a no sharing of food in the classroom policy. Food-based celebrations and rewards have been abolished, so teachers can skip worrying about the ingredients in cookies and actually focus on the primary purpose of school: education.

Jillienne & Gina LeeGina Mennett Lee with Jillienne: no food in class policy.

“The no food in the classroom was huge for me,” says Lee, who is a consultant to schools and families on food allergy issues. “I don’t have to go in for each party, be a room monitor, and check everything. I can send my daughter to school and feel comfortable that she will be safely included in all activities.”

In schools where a cafeteria is unavailable, a dairy-free classroom might not be feasible since mealtime access to milk must be guaranteed in many circumstances. Milk is the only food item singled out in the National School Lunch Act (NSLA), the U.S. federal law that governs the National School Lunch Program, as one that cannot be prohibited on participating school premises or at any school-sponsored event. Dairy-based foods are also offered in the National School Breakfast Program, which has been expanding in recent years through the Breakfast in the Classroom initiative.

To further guarantee its presence, the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Milk Program provides subsidies to supply milk to kids in non-profit private schools, half-day kindergarten, and to other students who may not have access to school meal programs. In our educational system, milk is not just a beverage, it’s considered a personal right.

But Spitzer-Picker discovered a backdoor that permits parents dealing with dairy allergy, at least in part, to use the NSLA to their advantage. Each district that participates in any of the mentioned child nutrition programs (this encompasses most public and some private schools) is required by federal law to establish a local school wellness policy.

Spitzer-Picker joined her district’s wellness committee, which had the leverage to ban food-based school celebrations, including pizza rewards and birthday parties, in the name of obesity prevention. She says a few teachers in her sons’ schools ignore the policy, but most staff members (including the janitors) are happy to keep as much food as possible out of the classroom. This has helped to create a safer learning environment for her kids.

These proactive mothers have demonstrated powerful ways to make changes in how dairy allergy is handled in school and reduce the number of tears wept over spilled milk. However, it does take a lot of work, patience, vigilance and communication skill to meet this challenge.

*Update: Lynne Glover was able to reach an accommodations plan with the Hamilton school and district in September 2014. Elodie has returned to school. See here for details.

Next: Finding a successful dairy allergy approach at your child’s school

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