What they eat can hurt them

Fairfield schools revising food allergy policy that is years out of date

Tricia Donovan’s daughter was 18 months old when she took a couple of bites of a ham sandwich and said, “No.”

Donovan tried to coax her into eating, but then her daughter started throwing up.

“I gave her Benadryl and frantically looked through the ingredients,” Donovan said.

The family had just come back from living in Belgium, and Donovan — a vigilant mother of two food-allergic children — was unaware that in this country milk is used as filler in ham.

“She could tell,” Donovan said of her daughter not wanting to eat the sandwich.

Her two allergic children (she has a third child who does not have allergies) are allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. They also have what is called an allergy triad, a trinity. They have food allergies, asthma and eczema.

“Their immune systems overreact,” Donovan said.

And her children could die from being exposed to allergens.

Now that they are ages 10 and 12, Donovan’s children attend the Fairfield public school system. They are just two of the 470 children in the district with known life-threatening food allergies.

Allergy-free schools?

Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, chairman of the Board of Education’s policy subcommittee, is hoping the board will have a new policy done in time for the administration to put regulations into effect by the start of the next school year, in August. The board decides what it wants through a policy, and the central office decides how to achieve it with administrative regulations.

The current policy dates back to 2004. Since then, there have been updates to state statutes regarding management of food allergies in schools.

Connecticut General Statute 10-212c, on managing food allergies in schools, required that each regional and local board of education implement a plan based on new guidelines and make the plan public by July 1, 2006, on a website for the board or each school, if they have websites. It also required the superintendent of schools for each district to annually attest to the Department of Education that his or her district is implementing a plan in accordance with the statute.

“The administration has kept up to date,” Maxon-Kennelly said. “The administration won’t wait for a policy update when they know something needs to be done.”

The board’s policy subcommittee began updating the district’s policy at its March 31 meeting.

“We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel,” Maxon-Kennelly said. They found a policy in the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education guidelines that she said is a lot more fleshed out than the current Fairfield policy. The board is using that as a starting ground.

“There are a lot more clear-cut guidelines,” she said.

The current policy is not detailed enough, Maxon-Kennelly added.

“It’s a lot more complicated than some people think,” she said. “We’re all having to learn, we have to be more specific.”

 A new, allergic world

Maxon-Kennelly does not remember her peers having food allergies when she was growing up, just pollen and bee reactions.

“This really is a changing landscape,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control cite an 18% increase in food allergies among children between 1997 and 2007. Its food allergy guidelines state that “allergic reactions to foods have become the most common cause of anaphylaxis in community health settings.”

Some concerned parents in Fairfield reached out to the Board of Education, and Maxon-Kennelly said the board is responding.

“I want parents to know that we’re doing this,” Maxon-Kennelly said. “I had no idea what [they were] going through.”

Donovan agreed that the presence of life-threatening food allergies among children has grown, and said there is no one theory on what causes it.

“Is it pesticides found in food?” she said. “I don’t know.”

What she does say she knows is that there is no treatment other than strict avoidance.

Jessica Curran, a mother of twins in elementary school with life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, said that food allergy danger does not even require ingestion of the harmful substance.

“If they touch a desk or doorknob or keyboard that has traces of peanut or tree nut protein, which is invisible to the naked eye, and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth, it is the same as actually eating it,” Curran said.

The  CDC defines a food allergy as “an adverse health effect arising from a specific immune response that occurs reproducibly on exposure to a given food.”

The CDC says that “in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.”

The district has slightly more than 10,000 students, making those with life-threatening food allergies 4.7% of the school population, in line with the national average of 4% to 6%.

According to the CDC, 25% of the severe and life-threatening allergic reactions occurring at schools are in children with no previous diagnosis.

“It’s very scary,” Curran said.

Teamwork

Protecting children with life-threatening allergies in school has to be a group effort, she said.

“We’re all part of a team,” Maxon-Kennelly said.

Donovan said that she has been “extremely lucky,” because her children’s school community has been very supportive.

“I don’t have the right to privacy,” Donovan said. “I need the cooperation and compassion [of others] to keep my children safe.”

Donovan said parents have gotten involved to help and to be educated. While food allergies are not novel at this point, they are a bit of a mystery to some.

“People have heard about it,” she said, “but they don’t quite get it.”

It is an issue that other school districts have also had to address. According to the CDC, in 2006, about 88% of schools had one or more students with food allergies.

Discussion has begun on the best ways to protect students while recognizing that it is impossible to create a 100% guarantee on what will enter the schools.

“[For instance], every building is used after hours by [the] non-school [public],” Maxon-Kennelly said.

Best practices

Amanda Murphy is a pediatrician and parent of children in the district who do not have food allergies. She recently spoke to the policy subcommittee urging a big-picture approach toward a districtwide policy.

“I hope that new policies will address the issue of inconsistent procedures,” Murphy said. “All nut-allergic children are at risk for anaphylaxis and should be granted similar protections.”

She discussed a procedure one of the district’s elementary schools recently put into place — in just two classrooms — that restricts classroom snacks to fruits and vegetables in their natural state.

Her son is in one of the two classrooms affected.

“This is not consistent with procedures in other nut-free classrooms,” she said. “[And] there is no evidence that this is a best practice.”

Murphy thinks this procedure creates a false sense of security.

She said she could be in her kitchen making peanut butter sandwiches and then cut up strawberries for her son’s snack that could end up with traces of peanut butter.

But under the policy, that snack would be considered OK.

“I would argue that the individually wrapped Goldfish was more safe,” Murphy said. “This isn’t the panacea and answer.”

Murphy also said there are children who, for a number of reasons, might not be able to eat fruit and vegetables.

“My son has no front teeth,” she said.

Murphy hopes that a new policy will be able to put into place practices that will keep allergic children safe while not causing stress around food.

She has faith in the central office.

“The school administration does a fantastic job,” Murphy said.

The community

Donovan said she wishes there were more activities children could participate in that do not involve food.

“So many events revolve around food inside and outside of school that it is a virtual minefield for children with food allergies,” Donovan said.

Curran she is advocating for all children in the district with allergies, not just her children.

“I am glad that the process has started,” she said. “It’s long overdue.”

But she also said that the efficacy of any new policy will come down to how well it is carried out.

“Protocols must be developed and applied in a consistent manner,” Curran said.

Curran and Donovan want to reach out to other parents of children with food allergies in Fairfield schools as well as parents with non-allergic children. They can be reached by emailing [email protected]

Policy subcommittee members may be contacted through the email addresses provided on the board of education’s website. In addition to Maxon-Kennelly, John Convertito and Donna Karnal are on the policy subcommittee.

There is always public comment at their meetings, which take place on the Mondays before Board of Education meetings.

Tricia Donovan helps her children — Juliette, 12, and William, 10 — prepare allergen-free food to take to school. (Laura Modlin Photo)

Tricia Donovan helps her children — Juliette, 12, and William, 10 — prepare allergen-free food to take to school. (Laura Modlin Photo)

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