When your allergic child starts school, stay strong to advocate for food safety in the classroom.
It’s fall and the beginning of another school year. I remember when I sent my daughter, who has celiac disease, off to a new school for junior kindergarten. I was nervous about how the school would handle gluten-free food, so I wrote a long, formal letter to the teachers. I also provided a large plastic bin full of gluten-free treats like gluten-free pretzels, cookies, crackers, popcorn and other snack foods for any possible occasion.
As a parent of a child with celiac disease or food allergies, it always pays to be thorough. And even if you are thorough, mistakes, unfortunately, can still happen. That’s why a food allergy parent should never be called a helicopter parent — hovering is a necessary part of our job.
I recently found the letter to the junior kindergarten teachers on my computer:
“My daughter has celiac disease and is on a strict gluten-free diet. She can’t eat any wheat, rye, barley (malt) or oats, or anything that is made from them. If she ingests just a tiny bit of gluten, she may get sick, including having stomach pains and diarrhea. … I will bring a box of snack food that is OK for her to eat. I will replenish it as needed, but please feel free to send home a note if I fall behind!… The safest course is to let her eat only the food that we send (other than fresh fruit etc.). The key thing to remember is: If in doubt, leave it out. If you don’t know that an item is gluten-free, then please explain to her that it might contain gluten and you cannot give it to her, and then offer her an alternative snack. …Avoiding cross-contamination is also important. Clean hands, plates and utensils are important. It’s often easier to give her a snack first before the other kids, so you don’t have to worry about crumbs on your hands. Similarly, crumbs spread easily with 4-year-olds, so the table needs to be cleaned with a spray cleanser before snack and after snack (so as not to have crumbs on the table when the kids are playing or doing an art project).”
OK, so maybe the note is a little long and overly detailed. And I omitted several paragraphs here. But, tell me, what food allergy parent isn’t over the top? You need to be — it’s a matter of your kid’s safety and survival.
Parents of Young Celiacs Need to Be Helicopters
A few days before the start of school, I met with the teachers, explained the gluten-free lowdown and gave them the box of snacks
My daughter was in a half-day program, from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. (please tell me how that is a “half day” or how a parent is supposed to get a day’s worth of errands done in 2.5 hours?). After her first day of school (or was it her second? I forget), I picked her up at 11:30 and we went out to lunch with her sister and her grandparents. We were sitting around the restaurant table, when I asked my daughter how her day was and what she had for a snack.
“It was good,” she said. “We had square crackers.”
“Wait. You mean the round gluten-free crackers that I packed?”
“No. They were square. And they were in a little plastic bag. Two of them.”
Instantly, I realized she was talking about a Saltine-type cracker that was definitely not gluten-free. I started to panic and asked her a million questions. What were the crackers? Where did they come from? Who gave them to her?
“I asked the teachers if they were for me,” she said. “And they said yes. And they looked good, so I ate them.”
She had realized that the square crackers were unfamiliar and suspicious. But she asked, and the adults said they were OK. And they looked tasty, so she ate them. She was 4 years old, after all.
I excused myself from the table and went into the restaurant’s bathroom to try to compose myself. When I came out, a little red in the face, I told my in-laws and my daughters that I needed to go back to the school immediately.
I drove back to the school, found the teachers and threw a fit. I know that I should not have yelled at them, but I was hopping mad. How could they give her the wrong crackers after I had just met with them and explained what was and what wasn’t gluten-free?
I regularly thank my lucky stars that celiac disease is not an anaphylactic allergy. My daughter had several uncomfortable bathroom days (yes, that’s a euphemism) following the cracker incident. And we had several conversations about questioning adults and not eating any foods if you’re unsure of their safety.
After that, I was never on the best terms with her teachers or the preschool director (whom I had a separate follow-up meeting with). But that’s OK. If they were on edge with me, I was fine with that, if it meant they were being careful with my daughter.
Even though it might seem like you are being a bit obsessive, it’s OK, especially for little kids. (When they’re older, it’s time to back off a bit.) That’s your job as a food-allergy or celiac parent, even if others think you are being a helicopter parent. Write the letters, meet with the teachers, meet with the director — do everything that you feel you need to do. Your kid’s health might depend on it.Originally posted September 2018