During the elementary and middle school years, many of us experienced high anxiety over the anticipation of hoping to find someone to sit by in the cafeteria during lunch period and just fitting in.
Even though that anxiety still exists today, some students are now even being hand-picked to sit isolated away from their classmates during this important social time with peers. Well, sort of.
With the increase in food allergy awareness, students with food allergies are now being asked to sit at separate tables everyday for lunch in school districts statewide. And although the intention is well-meant, the results of this isolation could potentially be damaging for some students.
My daughter, a 5th Grader, recently relayed a similar story to me about her friend, Meghan. Meghan and my daughter are very good friends, but day after day, Meghan would wave goodbye and retreat to no man’s land…otherwise known as the peanut-free table when it was time for lunch.
Though Meghan, does not sit alone, there are a few students sitting with her, they are not her close friends. Because of this, the table she sits at is often quite quiet. In fact, Meghan often spends most of the 15 minutes with her head down, not socializing with anyone. Sometimes Meghan’s friends, like my daughter walk by to say hello, but they are usually turned away by well-meaning cafeteria personnel, a.k.a. the Lunch Ladies.
The schools are trying to keep the children with food allergies safe, but by quarantining them, they may be at best, setting kids up to feel uncomfortable and different, and at worst for bullying for that difference.
Therein lies the dilemma. On the one hand, it is always important that students not be labeled and feel included. On the other hand, it truly is far too dangerous an opportunity for students with food allergies to mistakenly eat the wrong food in such an environment and have a life-threatening allergic reaction.
On purpose or not, mistakes can easily happen and students have long been known to trade, exchange, and even steal food without a second thought.
To date, many schools have chosen the route of safety. Some schools even go as far as distributing a waiver for parents to sign that explains the reasoning and asks for permission to seat their child at a designated table.
One thing that can’t be argued is that food allergies are a rapidly growing food safety and public health concern. An estimated 4-6 percent, and growing, of children in the United States have food allergies.
The importance of recognizing students dealing with food allergies, can no longer be ignored. Allergic reactions can be life threatening and have long-lasting effects on children and their families – as well as the schools they attend.
Obviously, educational institutions may not have found the perfect solution yet, especially in those socially challenging middle school years, but at least the issue is on the radar and schools will continue to work on solutions.
In the meantime, having discussions with your food allergy child to provide a venue for them to share how they are feeling is an important role for parents to play in helping children benefit nutritionally and socially from one of the best periods of a school day…lunch.