Navigating the lunchroom shouldn’t be hard.
But for students with food allergies, a cafeteria can seem like a minefield. Hall County and Gainesville school leaders believe this doesn’t have to be the case.
“We try to meet kids’ needs academically and with their health,” Donna Wiggins, principal at Riverbend Elementary School, said. “We try to make it where parents feel like their kids are in a safe and nurturing environment.”
Keeping watch in the lunchroom
Cheryl Jones, Hall’s director of school nutrition, said none of the system’s elementary school cafeterias serve peanut products. While the high schools and middle schools do prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she said the cafeteria staff makes sure sandwiches are individually wrapped.
This year, Riverbend Elementary has implemented its first “peanut free table” in the lunchroom. Allison Conley, who teaches first grade at the school, has a student with a peanut allergy. The student sits at the table with her friends, all of whom know not to bring food with peanuts.
Wiggins said the school made the decision to designate a table for her because “the mother communicated about the child’s need.”
“We don’t want her to feel different or ostracized; we want her to feel happy and have as normal of an environment as possible,” she said.
Conley posted a sign above her classroom door, labeling it a “peanut free zone.”
Conley, who has been teaching for 26 years, said she always notifies all her students’ parents, if one of her students has a food allergy.
Elizabeth Coolidge, nutrition manager at Martin Technology Academy, said the cafeteria staff keeps a close eye on the students with dietary restrictions.
When a child with a food allergy walks through the cafeteria’s check-out line, she said a notification pops up on the cashier’s screen.
The main food allergies she sees are eggs, peanuts and milk. She said the school keeps other options for those children, including lactose-free milk and desserts without eggs.
Louvenia Richardson, Fair Street International Academy’s nutrition manager, said the cafeteria staff is well aware of the children with allergies before they enter the lunchroom.
She said they make a point to not single out those students.
How to react to reactions
Since she was 25, Wiggins has suffered from multiple food allergies.
“I understand how allergies can make you feel,” she said. “They’re so strange. One day it may be on one level, and on a different day, another level.”
She said the more a child deals with the allergy, the more accustomed they are to reacting appropriately when an anaphylactic reaction occurs.
“I think it’s important that parents keep the lines of communication open and that they share with the schools about their child,” Wiggins said.
Shivani Shivmangal, Johnson High School’s nurse, said a majority of the time her students know what to do in the case of an anaphylactic reaction.
Like many school nurses, she encourages her students to carry and know how to use an EpiPen.
Once students receive written permission from their doctor to have an EpiPen, Shivmangal said she conducts a demonstration with them to make sure they know how to use it.
Last year she said only one student in the school had an anaphylactic reaction, and the student handled it accordingly.
Allergies on the rise
Over the 26 years Conley has served as a teacher, she has noticed a steady increase in students exhibiting food allergies, especially peanuts.
“Every year it just seems to grow, and the issue gets larger and larger,” she said.
Donell Ducote has worked as a family nurse practitioner at Advanced Allergy of North Georgia in Gainesville for nearly 20 years. In total, she has 50 years of nursing experience.
“It’s a well known fact that there’s an increase, especially with food allergies,” she said. “There’s controversy as to why this happens.”
When the school year starts up, Ducote said each child has a form that goes with them, specifying their allergies. She said it also covers the course of action nurses should take.
With babies and toddlers, Ducote said the most common allergy is milk. For school age children, it’s typically peanuts.