The increase in life-threatening food allergies among
children has changed the public school experience.
By Joanna Bu;um
“;; ;; ;;;;;?” Matt asks his teacher.
It’s a question he raises every day
about almost everything in his classroom,
from doorknobs to desk chairs. He also
asks, “Are you sure I can eat that?” and
“Can we call my Mom and check?”
Matt (not his real name) starts fourth
grade at Brooklake Elementary School in
Florham Park this month. His first trip
to the hospital came after eating yogurt
at ;; months old. Now ;;, he is deathly
allergic to milk, eggs, soy, tree nuts and
legumes, including peanuts. It’s a large
swath of the Big Eight—the eight catego-
ries of the most common food allergens.
These also include fish, shellfish and
wheat. Seed allergies are less common,
and though Matt outgrew his allergy to
sesame, mustard is still a hazard.
Matt’s daily life is rooted in routine.
Before he eats lunch, he meticulously
washes his hands. At the same time, his
designated classroom aide wipes down
the cafeteria table where he plans to
eat his bagged lunch. The table is a safe
distance from the trash cans where carefree peers toss their half-finished milk
cartons and peanut butter sandwiches.
Before Matt starts computer class, his
aide wipes down the screen, the mouse,
the keyboard and the table around his
workspace. Green signs on the classroom
doors declare: “This is an ‘Allergy Free’
Zone. No peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg,
soy, beans, mustard, peas. Your cooperation will help keep our school safe for all
our children.” During snack time, Matt
eats in the classroom while his classmates enjoy their allergen-rich snacks
in the hallway. Matt prefers to eat alone.
These precautions have helped
Matt avoid allergic reactions in school.
Symptoms of such reactions—wheezing,
coughing, watery eyes, hives, inflammation, vomiting, diarrhea—are how the immune system ejects toxins. In the worst
cases, the body goes into anaphylactic
shock, the technical term for an extreme
allergic reaction involving a significant
drop in blood pressure, trouble breathing
and even death.
According to a ;;;; study from the
Centers for Disease Control, food allergies among children nearly doubled from
;;;; to ;;;;. One of every ;; children has
a food allergy. The increase is not a “
frequency illusion” traced to rising awareness. Rather, it is a real, quantifiable jump
believed to be caused by modern lifestyle
and environmental factors.
The growing frequency of food allergies has significantly altered the classroom experience of an average public
school student. As recently as ;; years
ago, there were no allergy-conscious
rules regulating food; there were no hand
sanitizers and disinfectant wipes in every
“Kids didn’t have these problems when
I was young,” says Tracy, mom of Alex
(not their real names), a Hudson county
first-grader who is allergic to peanuts,
tree nuts, sesame and soy. “I think some
people still don’t take it seriously. They
have to understand that kids have died
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