Are these the best solutions for cafeteria seating?
The motivation for these special tables is that if allergens aren’t allowed at the table, we remove the risk. Sounds great, right? This situation actually raises more questions for me.
- Are these students isolated? This depends on how many children are sitting at the table. Some may be allowed to ask a friend or two to join them. But this leads to my next concern…
- Can we be sure we’ve removed all the risk? Is there a false sense of security at this table? There is no guarantee that every item in a friend’s lunch is safe, especially when it comes to the chance of cross contact.
The terms peanut-free or allergy-free can be vague.
What does peanut-free really mean? No peanut butter? What about granola bars? Does anyone know if that eggroll has peanut sauce in it? How about the chicken tenders that may have been fried in peanut oil? What about the muffin that doesn’t contain peanuts but has a chance of cross contact with peanuts? Can a table be declared “peanut free” if all of these possibilities (and more) aren’t taken into account?
The situation becomes even more complicated for an “allergy free” table. If students have different allergies, can an entire table of students really have lunches that are all “safe”? Think about this scenario as an example: 7 students in one lunch period have food allergies. Nathan, Isaac, and Rachel are allergic to peanuts. Suzy is allergic to milk and peanuts. Johnny is allergic egg. Tim can’t have peanut, tree nut and poppy seeds. Emily’s list is soy, fish and tree nuts. Can an “allergy-free” table truly claim to be free from all of these allergens? Not likely. It would be close to impossible for all of these students to have meals that are not only safe for themselves but for the other students as well.
When working on lunch accommodations, I think it’s best to have the goal of reducing risk. It is not possible to remove all risk. Risk is a part of life for those with food allergies. Reducing risk is an attainable and realistic goal.
Alternatives to the peanut-free table
The riskiest items are the messiest ones. Strategic seating is the best way to reduce the risk of sticky peanut butter coming in contact with the child with peanut allergies.
Consider these alternative solutions:
- All students that bring peanut butter sit at one end of the table. Those that do not bring peanut butter sit at the other end of the table. The child with a peanut allergy is sure to sit at the non-peanut butter end.
- Most hot lunches served in the school cafeteria are least likely to include peanut butter (unless they actually serve PB sandwiches). The students with peanut allergies can only sit next to peers that have a hot lunch from the cafeteria.
- Peanut table. Yes, this solution is probably not popular with parents of kids who love PB&J at lunch, but some schools are implementing this policy. If a student brings peanut butter in his/her lunch, the child must sit at the designated table. (Personally, I think finding middle ground may be a better solution for everyone socially).
Alternatives to the allergy-free table
A child can be allergic to any food. We need to be sure that we don’t overlook any of the food allergies that can be just as life threatening as a peanut allergy.
One of the most difficult to manage in schools is a milk allergy. Milk is everywhere. It’s spillable out of a carton, spreadable from yogurt and ice cream … then there is the cheese dust that sticks to little fingers after eating so many popular foods for kids. Also, what about the child with multiple allergies? The more foods added to the allergen list reduce the chance of a peer also having a “safe” lunch.
Here are some suggestions to reduce the risk for these children:
- Create extra space. The child with food allergies can sit at the end of the table and allow for an empty seat next to them. This gives the child some elbowroom and allows extra space in case another student spills food on the table (especially milk).
- Strategic seating. You can observe any elementary class and easily see that some students do an excellent job of keeping their hands to themselves, and some don’t. Identify the students at both ends of this spectrum. Surround the student with allergies with peers that are well-behaved at lunch. Put the students that struggle to keep their hands to themselves more than arms length away.
- Lunch buddies. If the child with allergies has a friend in the class that is particularly aware of their allergies and knows how to safely eat next to their friend, it’s great to specifically seat them next to each other. *Be sure your school doesn’t assume that because two children have food allergies that they would be good to sit together. Each family has a different approach to food allergy management. Some are more comfortable with risks than others. Some children are very aware of their allergies, and others aren’t. It could actually be detrimental to your child if he/she is seated next to a peer that doesn’t have good self-management skills. This could confuse a young child who is managing more restrictions. To a child a bit older, it may cause them to take risks.
Again, lunch accommodations need to be specific to the individual child’s needs and situation. One of these solutions may work, or a combination of them may need to be implemented. Whatever strategy is chosen, the important part is that all of these solutions fully integrate the child. While some students may not get to sit next to their best friend, everyone has the same opportunity to socialize at lunch. Inclusion is necessary for all children.
All of the above solutions are focused on the seating, but seating is only one part of cafeteria accommodations. There is also a great need for supervision from school staff, especially for younger children. Be sure your child’s accommodation plan specifically states what is necessary for proper supervision. Training that includes how to recognize and treat a reaction are essential. Immediate access to epinephrine is vital.
Please don’t overlook how the table is cleaned. It’s very important that a spilled allergen isn’t cleaned with a rag and then spread to all the other tables by cleaning with the same rag. A disposable placemat can also add another layer of protection.
Peer awareness also plays a significant role in regard to safety in the cafeteria. All students need to know how they can support their peers. Included in this should be no food sharing, keep your hands to yourself, and don’t touch other people’s food.
Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, children with food allergies need to learn how to safely and comfortably sit near someone who is eating their allergens. This is difficult. Some parents may not like considering it. I am a huge advocate for teaching our children self-management skills starting at a young age. Children with food allergies always need to be aware of food around them. They should not let their guard down just because they are sitting at a certain table in the cafeteria. This false sense of security can have dangerous consequences. Work with your child to only eat food that you have approved and stay focused on the food in front of them. Empower them to use their voice by speaking up if someone isn’t keeping their hands to themselves and always questioning something if they are unsure about it. Build their confidence. Encourage this confidence to lead their actions, instead of fear.
Do you have other suggestions that work well for your child? What does your school do to provide a safe eating environment for students with food allergies?
For more advice on school accommodations read my Back to School Prep Blog.