Unfortunately, food allergy has been present in the news more than usual here in Chicago. As I mentioned in a previous post, the death of a young girl due to an anaphylactic reaction at school has brought a lot of attention to the issue of food allergies and safety in the school setting recently. Furthermore, the State of Illinois has a new food allergy management law that went into effect this January. It requires all Illinois schools to adopt a plan to address food allergies.
There has been some great writing on these subjects by my fellow allergy-mom bloggers, and I don't want to dilute what they've been saying by trying to paraphrase what should or should not be part of a sensible plan. I'd prefer to send you to them directly. Both the Food Allergy Mama, Kelly Rudnicki, and The Nut-Free Mom, Jenny Kales have done a wonderful job speaking out for those of us with children with this scary, life-threatening condition.
It is with dismay, however, that I heard this morning that the Chicago school board passed an initiative last night providing for free breakfast in the classroom for every elementary school child in Chicago public schools (410,000 kids). Certainly, I am in favor of high-quality nutrition for all children. Growing bodies and minds need to be fed. I have worked for the past 15 years in the social service field and the past 8 working for an agency that serves homeless women and children. I get it. I strongly support access to free, high-quality nutrition. But, please, don't put my child's health at risk while trying to improve the health of others!
We have, in fact, had the option to partake in free Universal Breakfast at our Chicago Public School for the past couple of years. Families that wanted to take part it in this program only had to send their kids to school a little early, and they could eat a free, nutritious breakfast in the cafeteria. This new program will provide a sack breakfast for each child to eat in the classroom for the first 15 minutes of the class day.
Why is this a problem for food-allergy kids?
The obvious first issue is that for thousands of kids, the food is not safe. My child (who is allergic to milk, eggs and nuts) and thousands like him will be excluded from this program because it is dangerous for them to eat the food. I don't love the school mandating activities from which my son will be excluded, but that is the least of my concerns with this new program. My bigger worry is that his classroom, his learning environment, will no longer be safe for him. According to the Chicago Tribune article reporting on the new program, the breakfasts will include eggs, cereal and milk. Even if Casey is not eating the breakfast, the child in the desk next to him will be. Inevitably there will be spills and messes on the desks, schools supplies and in the classroom. Kids who are allergic can have a reaction just from touching their allergen. Children do not only work at their own desks, but they frequently work collaboratively at each other's desks. Overburdened teachers cannot be expected to thoroughly clean and sanitize all work surfaces after breakfast, but before lessons commence.
People might ask why is this different than kids drinking milk in the cafeteria. The answer is time. The kids are in the cafeteria for about 15 minutes. I can teach Casey how to protect himself while he eats his lunch. If someone spills her milk, Casey can get up and leave the cafeteria and not return until the next day. He cannot leave the classroom in the same way. Many children living with food allergies have anxiety about their safety, and rightfully so. This worry could interfere with these kids' ability to concentrate on their school work.
I do not think that the CPS board disregarded the risk to the approximately 20,000 children living with food allergies affected by this program. (Widely accepted statistics conservatively place food allergies between 4 to 6% of the child population in the U.S.) I think the thought never occurred to them. Please bring breakfast back to the cafeteria, where food belongs, and keep food out of the classroom.