Best Educational Environment For Kid With Food Allergies

Almost all parents experience a little fear and trepidation, in addition to some relief, when they send their children off to school. Your child may become the victim of cruel bullies, be exposed to infectious diseases, get in with the wrong crowd, or get hurt on the playground.

Parents of children who have severe food allergies have one more thing to worry about — their allergic children experiencing a severe allergic reaction. For other parents, home schooling just doesn’t fit into their plans for Junior; they want their child to attend the local school system, so he can be “like other kids.”

What’s the alternative? To find a good school where the administrators, teachers, and other staff are fully aware of the dangers surrounding food allergies and then work with the school to make it even safer for your child. Parents want the best education for their children.

What’s best, however, varies greatly from one parent to another. Some parents simply don’t trust the educational system to properly educate their children and keep them safe, so they choose to home school. Some parents believe that private schools offer superior educational opportunities.

Others find that the combined value of academics and social-skills learning provided by their local public school systems are the perfect solution. I can’t tell you what’s best for your children, whether or not they have food allergies, but I lay out your options and provide some guidelines, so you can make a well-educated decision in respect to your allergic child’s safety.

Public schools are required by law to make accommodations, even for the most allergic child. If you have trouble convincing your school to cooperate, which is hopefully not the case, refer to “504 Plans,” to find out more about your rights.

Home schooling

For parents who are already considering home schooling their children, having a child with a severe food allergy may tip the scales in favor of home schooling. The decision is perfectly understandable. The parents, leaning toward home schooling their child anyway, factor in food allergy and choose home schooling as the best option.

Few parents who have children with food allergy, however, decide to home school based solely on the fact that the child has a food allergy, no matter how severe it happens to be. Even in cases when the parents do base their decision to home school solely on the food allergy, they often could have made arrangements with the school to provide an acceptable level of safety.

Public versus Private Schools

If you’re thinking about sending your child to a private school, you probably already have a lot on your mind, including the big question — “Can we afford it?” You’re probably weighing the costs and benefits right now and considering various factors, including academics, athletics, religious beliefs, family tradition, and social benefits.

When deciding whether to send a child with a severe food allergy to a private or public school, other considerations may influence your choice:

  • Legally protected rights: Although most private schools are just as concerned about the safety of their students as public schools, laws and other regulations that govern medical conditions and disabilities, including food allergy, do not apply to most private schools. Establishing the right accommodations in a private school is a more voluntary process.
  • Cooperation: Some private schools are unbelievably accommodating when it comes to food allergy, while others are abysmal. By speaking to other families and to school administrators, you can usually gauge the school’s willingness to cooperate. Private schools typically fall into one of the following three categories:
  • Experienced and proven: The school has had many students with food allergies and has established an excellent track record in keeping them safe.
  • Unproven but willing: The school has little experience dealing with food allergy but is very willing to work with you to make their school the best possible place for your child.
  • Inexperienced and unwilling: The school has little or no experience in dealing with food allergy and is unmotivated to change course. Administrators may see it as too bothersome or too much of a legal risk.
  • Size: School size matters, but not in the way that many parents may think. Some parents think that smaller is better, especially if the school has a higher student-to-teacher ratio, because the school provides more supervision.

A smaller school, however, is less likely to have a cafeteria, meaning that students probably eat in the classrooms. While the cafeteria may sound like a nightmarish place for someone with food allergy, it can actually be made quite safe, and I almost always prefer to get the food out of the classrooms as much as possible.

  • Nurse availability: Having a nurse on staff is a big plus, but it shouldn’t make or break your decision. Again, larger schools are more likely to have a full-time nurse, but some small schools have a nurse, and some large schools don’t. I’m used to working with schools without nurses, and most schools can establish a safe environment even without a nurse.
  • Location: Occasionally, the location of the school, especially the proximity to your home, is an important factor. Being closer to home can mean shorter bus rides, or no bus ride at all, and a shorter distance for you to travel in the event of a reaction.

In the final analysis, food allergy is not likely to be the deciding factor between public and private schools but these are all important issues to consider. Although public schools are required by law to accommodate special needs, not all public schools are equally eager to conform to the legal requirements.

In other words, certain public schools can be as uncooperative as a private school. With public schools, however, you have more legal leverage to force them into providing the necessary accommodations.

Cafeteria or Brown Bag?

Eating the cafeteria food may be a risky proposition, even for students without food allergies, but most students enjoying buying lunch at least some of the time, so the option is worth investigating. When deciding whether to allow your child to buy school lunch, consider your child’s food allergy, the knowledge and experience of the food service staff, and the menu selections:

  • If your child has an isolated allergy, such as peanut, and the school and food service staff are well indoctrinated in reading labels and following precautions to avoid cross-contamination, your child may be able to eat a variety of foods on the menu.
  • If, on the other hand, your child is allergic to milk, egg, wheat, or other allergens commonly used as ingredients in many foods, then cross contamination may be too risky, particularly if the food service staff is inexperienced.
  • If the menu is loaded with items that contain the allergen that your child is allergic to, brown bagging it may be the best option. Even with a well trained and very careful food service staff, the risk may not be worth it.

If you decide to let your child buy lunch, even part of the time, have a detailed meeting with the food service staff, from the top down, to review ingredients, policies, and procedures. This is necessary, even if the food service staff has had experience with preparing foods for students with food allergies.

After you’ve done your homework, if you still feel uncomfortable with the idea of your child eating the school lunch, then brown bagging may the best solution. In addition to preventing reactions, the food is likely to be much better.

Although most people view lunchtime as the most menacing threat to children with food allergies, the risk of accidental exposure looms larger in the perilous party scene and at snack time. In fact, any eating activity that disrupts the normal routine is far more risky than the relatively well-controlled environment of the lunchroom.

Without becoming the school’s party pooper mascot, your child can keep parties and snack times safe by following a few simple precautions:

  • No sharing food. Instruct your child never to share, trade, or accept food from others, even if it looks safe or the giver swears that the food is completely allergen free. Follow one rule about sharing food — never do it!
  • Bring a safe party food alternative from home. For scheduled parties, send in a safe party food for your child, volunteer to cater the party yourself, or have your child’s teacher keep a store of safe party foods available for surprise parties.
  • Host the party in the cafeteria. If possible, keep party foods out of the classroom, so students can return to an allergen-free classroom after the party.

Parties often pose the most serious risks for three reasons: they break routine, often include problem foods (such as desserts with peanut, egg, milk, and wheat), and involve eating foods in the classroom, increasing the risk of exposure.

On a Field Trip

Like parties, field trips disrupt the normal routine. One day your child is sitting in the classroom, and the next, he’s off to the dairy farm to learn the fine art of homogenizing milk.

When you hear about a planned field trip, your ears should perk up, and you need to ask a few questions to find out where the class is going, what they’re planning to do, where they’re planning to eat, and who’s responsible for making sure the medications get on the bus and providing emergency medical treatment.

Consider the following issues at least a few days before the planned departure date:

  • Is the class going somewhere that could be hazardous? A milk allergic child may be better off skipping the field trip to the local dairy farm, and a student with wheat allergy may want to forego the bakery tour. With sufficient early warning, the teacher may be willing to work with you to choose a safer destination, but if the itinerary is already set, your child may have to remain behind.
  • Who’s in charge of your child? In most cases, the teacher takes a group of children, and other groups are assigned to parent chaperones. At this point, the teacher should be well informed of your child’s allergy, so having your child in the teacher’s group may be best.

If that’s not possible, volunteer to chaperone or at least talk to the parent who’s going to be assigned to your child’s group. Who’s responsible for packing, carrying, and administering the medicines? The medicines need to be available at all times, not left sitting on the bus.

  • Is a cell phone going to be available at all times, if anything comes up?
  • Can you go on the trip? In some schools, parents are diplomatically uninvited. Others prefer you to go. Offloading the responsibility onto you sure makes the teacher’s life easier.

504 Plans

Most schools do everything possible to provide students with a safe educational environment and are willing to implement necessary policies and procedures to accommodate students with even the most severe food allergies. If your school’s policies and procedures are inadequate and its administrators or staff members are unwilling to provide accommodations that you and your doctor think are necessary, you have legal recourse.

Three key laws protect the rights of disabled individuals in schools and other institutions that receive federal funding. I describe these laws and show how they apply to food allergies. Unfortunately, some schools don’t know the laws or mistakenly believe that they only protect the rights of students who are physically or mentally handicapped or require educational modifications.

Section 504

Section 504 is a civil rights law with a twofold purpose: “ . . . to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in education or employment in any program or institution receiving federal funds, and to ensure that students with handicaps or disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education.”

Public schools and private preschools and daycare centers that receive federal funds must comply with this law and its regulations to qualify for financial assistance. Sometimes, students with less obvious disabilities, such as life-threatening food allergies, are not considered “disabled.”

However, students have been able to have their health- and learning-related concerns successfully addressed at school under Section 504. Under Section 504, a school district must consider the individual needs of a child and provide related services or necessary program modifications to enable that child to attend school.

The school must provide these modifications at no cost to the parents. The law provides that students with disabilities must be educated with non-disabled students, and students with disabilities must receive the same or equal access to educational opportunities or extracurricular activities that are provided to students without disabilities.

Students cannot be excluded from going on field trips, eating in the cafeteria, or participating in class projects because of their food allergies. Schools must comply with Section 504 as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. Failure to provide an appropriate public education is a violation of a student’s civil rights and can jeopardize the school’s federal funding.

If you’ve done everything you can and the school remains unresponsive to your requests, call the United States Health and Human Services Department at 1-800-368-1019, e-mail, or visit to file a complaint online. For more information about 504 plans, including a Question and Answer section and links to additional useful Web sites, visit the Council for Educators for Students with Disabilities, Inc. Web site at

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

IDEA requires schools to evaluate any student suspected of having special needs and to provide for that student’s educational needs in the least restrictive environment, as appropriate for the individual child.

IDEA specifies that parents of children with disabilities and school personnel are equal partners in the planning process that creates the goals, program and environmental modifications, and services that are written into the Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP or other written plan is not required by Section 504, but IDEA reinforces your child’s rights to a fair education.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), further extends the rights and responsibilities provided under Section 504. ADA states “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods and services . . . of any . . . public accommodation.”

The ADA states that public accommodations, including any school receiving federal funding, must take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is excluded, denied services, segregated, or otherwise treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services. Noncompliance with the ADA can result in civil and criminal penalties or even loss of federal assistance.

When a school seems reticent to ensure the safety and full participation of your child in their curriculum, you may have no choice but to cite the laws that ensure your child’s rights. Bottom line, the law requires the school to:

  • Not deny a child admission based on the child’s disability.
  • Recognize children with life-threatening food allergies as disabled and protected under federal law.
  • Work with parents to enable students to safely participate in all activities with their peers.
  • Provide services and program modifications under section 504 for disabled students, even if they’re not eligible for special education.
  • Provide necessary accommodations, so no student is excluded from field trips, eating in the cafeteria, or class projects because of their food allergies.
  • Provide an appropriate public education to eligible students.
  • Provide benefits and services detailed under Section 504, regardless of whether the student is considered a special student under IDEA.
  • Have an appeals procedure in place (required both by IDEA and Section 504) to field complaints from any parent who feels that their child is not receiving the benefits and services they need.