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