Milk Allergy in the School

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in Parenting & School
Published: August 21, 2014
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 upErin Stevenson | Allergic Living

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.

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 accommodation for misunderstood milk allergy