When couples decide to have children, their vision is generally a connected and emotionally balanced family unit. Effort is made not only to allow children the latitude to express themselves and to communicate their needs, but also to use good manners. So, of course a lot of emphasis is placed on teaching children to share. However, sharing is not a natural behavior for children due to their attachment to things.
According to Dr. Sears, “the power to possess is a natural part of the child’s growing awareness.” Yet, in an effort to mold children into polite little beings, adults work diligently to model sharing and sometimes overly encourage children to share not only their toys, but their food too. This habit increases as kids get older and follows them as they move into preschool and elementary school. Although sharing is an important social practice, food sharing is neither safe nor healthy.
In fact, in 2018 food sharing is a risk. An estimated 5.9 million children in the U.S. under age 18 suffer from a food allergy or intolerance. That’s approximately two children in every classroom, so chances are you know someone or your child knows someone with a food allergy or intolerance. Teaching children to be safe with food has become a new normal in many homes, and now the lesson is moving into many public schools. Studies show that it is common for a child with a food allergy or intolerance to have a reaction at school, and 25% of the food reactions that do occur while at school happen to a child with no previous diagnosis.
In an effort to prevent emergencies related to food consumption, schools are doing more than just adopting a “peanut free” environment. Many schools are implementing a “no-food-sharing” policy. It may seem extreme, but some schools go so far as suspending a student for sharing food. Food allergies and intolerances are a reality and prevention is safer than treating an emergency. Parents and students may feel this line of thinking is ridiculous, but read on to see why this level of prevention is necessary.
What is Cross-Contact?
Cross-contact occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred from a food containing an allergen to another food or to a surface. The way each food is prepared or packed for each student’s lunch can have an impact on someone with a food allergy or intolerance. For example, a student or parent may handle eggs, milk, peanut butter, or other allergens while eating breakfast or preparing a lunch, then reach into the fridge to grab an apple for the lunchbox or backpack without washing their hands. This small oversight with cross-contact may seem harmless to the individual handling the food, but it could have dramatic results for the child who unknowingly consumes that apple when it is shared with him by a friend at lunch.
For a child with a sucrose intolerance, simply eating the apple can cause gas, bloating, or diarrhea. On their own, these symptoms are uncomfortable. Experiencing them at school can be humiliating and traumatic.
What about Undiagnosed Allergies?
As mentioned above, 25 percent of the reactions due to a food allergy or intolerance happen in children not previously diagnosed with any food sensitivity. Food allergies and intolerances are on the rise, and children do not have to have other family members with food allergies to develop them on their own. If a reaction does occur at school, tracing all food eaten, including its preparation and where it has come from, is vital in isolating the sensitivity or allergy. This information is easier to gather when food is not shared.
Is It an Allergy or Intolerance?
For anyone not familiar with the symptoms of an allergy versus an intolerance, it may be hard to tell the difference. Initial reactions may appear similar, but let’s take a look at the differences. A food allergy is an actual immune response the body has to ingesting or coming into contact with an allergen. The top eight allergens are milk, wheat, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soy, eggs, and tree nuts; and reactions to a food allergy can be severe.
Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that needs to be treated right away. Symptoms include swelling of the lips and tongue, itching in the nose or throat, rapid breathing, abdominal pain, chest pain, and the inability to breathe. An anaphylactic reaction requires an epinephrine (adrenaline) shot as soon as possible; it is the only medication know to stop and reverse this reaction. Left untreated, anaphylaxis can be deadly. Not every school is equipped with emergency Epipens, and not every adult is aware of the signs of an anaphylactic allergic reaction.
On the other hand, a food intolerance is a response to a food your system has trouble digesting. For example, Congenital Sucrase-Isomaltase Deficiency (CSID), also known as sucrose intolerance, is one such intolerance. Individuals suffering from sucrose intolerance lack the enzyme that digests sucrose, which is white table sugar. The symptoms experienced with sucrose intolerance range from mild to severe gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort.
How Can Parents Help?
How can parents help prevent food allergy and food intolerance reactions? By teaching children the danger of sharing foods and explaining how some foods can be harmful to others. Parents have mastered the conversation about “stranger-danger,” now we can add another social awareness to the list. Sharing food is not safe. A great list of how to start this conversation can be found at foodallergy.org.