Linda Hooper-Bui is an associate professor of entomology at Louisiana State University.
With the start of the new school year, classrooms all over the country have no doubt been declared nut-free zones. As the parent of a child in elementary school, I’m familiar with the warnings: “Please, no nuts due to allergies!” As the mother of a child with severe allergies, I’d like to suggest a different approach: Don’t restrict allergens at all.
School, even elementary school, is a place of preparation. By that I mean not just academics but also learning to behave as a member of a community. And my 6-year-old’s community is not always going to be allergen-free.
My daughter is allergic to, among other things, wheat, beef, gelatin, barley, food dyes yellow No. 6 and blue No. 1 and sodium benzoate (a widely used food preservative). Her wheat allergy is such that if another child handles a food that contains flour and then touches my child, she can get hives (urticaria) or swelling (edema) where she was touched. Last Thanksgiving, as we visited a wildlife park and fed animals, my daughter was licked on the arm by a beefalo. She went into anaphylaxisand got hives all over her body.
These are severe reactions, and I take her health seriously. I also realize that she will not always have me there to watch what she touches or eats. So, I place all decisions in her hands and allow her to take charge of her health and well-being. She has been taught to read labels and recognize food ingredients that are triggers.
It is important to teach her to function in a world filled with things that make her very sick. It is unrealistic to think that, years from now, my child will be able to tell her co-workers they cannot eat flour in the office. Although well-intentioned, making classrooms allergen-free zones doesn’t teach children how to make safe choices or otherwise manage their health.
Similarly, I wish that schools would not require children to wash their hands any more than usual because of a food-allergic child. I want my daughter’s condition to have minimal impact on other students. The children with whom my daughter interacts see the precautions she takes and, sometimes, the medicine on which she relies. I encourage her to talk to her friends about her autoimmune issues. So far, we have found that other children are receptive and interested. They understand that my child will sometimes ask them not to touch her or may request that they wash their hands before playing with her. I want that request to come from my child and be negotiated between her and her friends.
Rather than placing restrictions on entire populations of students, let’s have open conversations about food allergies. Children with allergies should be armed with the skills to navigate our complex world. I want the adults in my child’s life to listen to her needs and then trust her to make the appropriate decisions to keep herself healthy.