Food Allergy Plan Tips, Part 2

In “The Buzz on (Food) Bans” in the June/July 2014 issue of School Nutrition, author Arianne Corbett, RD, discusses a variety of approaches taken by schools and districts in developing a food allergy management and prevention plan. In the article, she summarizes tips for school nutrition directors, managers and employees included in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs.

The following are other key tips included in CDC’s updated guidelines, along with advice from several district directors.

  • Support and attend professional development opportunities on food allergies. All nutrition services staff should attend district training on food allergies. These general trainings help increase awareness and relay the severity of food allergies. They also provide the basics on signs and symptoms and a review of district-wide policies and procedures. Regular, frequent training is a must. Staff should feel comfortable following policies and protocols for student identification, documentation, label reading, handwashing, safe food handling and prevention of cross contact. If it is not already, food allergy management should be a regular piece of the training curriculum for any district.

    Betsy Craig, CEO of MenuTrinfo, a provider of foodservice allergen training, offers a related tip. “Every single place you run water, any place with a sink, should have an allergy poster on the wall about the big eight allergens. Just like we have a poster about what to do when someone is choking, we need to have the poster about an allergic reaction,” she recommends.
  • Educate students and family members about food allergies. Promote and disseminate the district’s food allergy policies to families, staff and the community through the department or district’s website, back-to-school-night events and PTA meetings. Educating students and parents should be a collective effort. “Teaching about food allergies is a community opportunity. Every school district has the opportunity to teach a child about all aspects of life. This is just another opportunity for education,” emphasizes Sherry Coleman Collins, RD, a nutritionist and consultant for the National Peanut Board.

    Be prepared to share food labels, recipes or ingredient lists used to prepare meals and snacks with others. Provide a list of ingredients and allergy information on your website. Gitta Grether-Sweeney, RD, director of nutrition services for Portland (Ore.) Public Schools, emphasizes that an elaborate list is not required. “You can do something as simple as a spreadsheet of all your food items [cross-checked against] a list of the top eight allergens. Make a check mark if the food contains one of those eight. Then make that available for families. It doesn’t have to be fancy,” she advises.

    If you are more tech savvy, consider a web-based menu program that allows nutrition services staff to input allergy information along with all other menu details. Students and families accessing the school menus then can easily identify and avoid menu options containing problem allergens. Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools has recently implemented the Nutrislice menu application, and they are pleased with the results. Being able to access this information “helps empower parents to have the knowledge they need,” describes Angie Gaszak, nutrition specialist for the district.

    Empower students with information at the point of selection. Portland Public Schools has developed food identification cards for the serving line with information for school nutrition staff on one side and students on the other. “We’ve identified each of the entrées and listed the name in five languages. We have different icons for each allergen, along with a picture and a word. These are posted on the lines for kids with just the name and the allergens, so that kids can ask as they come through,” Grether-Sweeney explains.
  • Create and maintain a healthy and safe environment. Everyone in the school environment has a role to play in managing and preventing food allergies. School nutrition is one piece of that puzzle. “You are a component; it is not your sole responsibility,” emphasizes Peggy Eller, nutrition services director for Hudson (Wis.) School District. Nutrition services staff should work collaboratively to ensure that a district policy fits the needs of the district, the students and the school nutrition department. Effective collaboration and comprehensive policies can provide a proactive approach to help keep students safe and healthy.

    Whether or not a district determines a ban on specific foods is the correct approach is completely individual, but the need for a comprehensive plan is not. Craig says it well: “We are not going to refuse children with food allergies, so let’s stop making this dramatic. You are already at the plate—let’s figure out how to swing the bat, because the ball is coming!”

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