A spike in children’s peanut allergies over the last decade is a phenomenon the medical community can’t explain. Understanding and coping with a child’s food allergy takes a village—from doctors to teachers.
“OK Sweetpea, what kind of cereal would you like?” said April Toms.
Breakfast for the Toms family is always a little nuts, but you won’t find any on the menu:
“We always read the labels before we get our cereal—we always have to make sure there are no nuts, so we have Corn Chex or Frosted Mini wheats?” said Toms.
6 year old Sydney Toms is highly allergic to peanuts—something her mother April discovered within minutes of giving her daughter peanut butter when she was a baby:
“I just gave her some on some crackers and walked away and she was in her highchair and then I turned around and her hand was blown up like a balloon just from touching it.”
Her pediatrician referred Sydney to an allergist:
“We got her tested for everything, and that’s when we found out all the nuts, walnuts, pecans, the numbers were off the charts.”
A peanut allergy is one of the most common, serious and potentially fatal food allergies. It’s an immune response to peanut protein—the most serious reaction is called “anaphylaxis,” when blood pressure drops dramatically.
According to the Peanut Institute, about 1% of children in the US have peanut allergies, but that number has more than doubled between 1997 and 2002. Allergist Dr. Kevin Schaeffer says there’s no medical explanation yet for the spike in allergic kids—but there are theories—like what’s known as the hygiene hypothesis:
“It has to do with being immunized and it has to do with the immune response to that. We go through a process of shifting from dealing with infections to dealing with allergies when we are immunized and we have a cleaner environment.”
For April Toms, being the parent of a child with allergies is more than just recognizing and reading labels— it’s making sure Sydney stays away from all tree nuts when she’s at school:
“I’m putting my daughter in her teacher’s hands, so I have trust that she’s going to do it.”
President Obama signed the Food Allergy and Aniphilaxis Management Act, known as FAMA, into law last year. It encourages state and local governments to implement policies and guidelines to manage food allergy risk.
It’s what is setting the bar for schools like Dunwoody Elementary School to train their staff about allergies. Casey Goodwin is Sydney ’s first grade teacher:
“We sent a letter home at the beginning of the year first grade as a policy, we are not doing any outside food for birthdays, they can bring in party favors, and things like that, but no food and no outside food is allowed in our cafeteria
Food allergy rules and policies differ by school—and often by the decision of teachers like Goodwin not to allow outside food into the classroom. But allergy training for school staffs is now routine throughout the state.
Karen Harris founded Food Allergy Kids of Atlanta and trains teachers how to recognize if a student is having an allergic reaction.
In this demonstration at Redan Elementary School in DeKalb County , Harris is showing teachers how to properly administer an epipen—an Epinephrine injection used to treat life threatening allergic reactions.
“One thing we’d like to see all districts and schools implement is the stock epinephrin law. And that allows schools to keep stock epinephrin on school grounds in case there is a first time reaction and in case they need to have that medication.”
It’s almost snack time for Mrs. Goodwin’s kindergarteners, and it’s a classroom effort to keep hands clean. Kids use antibacterial hand gel and have a cupboard full of wipes to clean their snack space:
“For snack, I have two children that go, we wipe tables down for them and they eat their snack in a separate place,” said Goodwin.
Sydney takes her grapes and sits down alone, separate from her classmates. She’s learned that Allergy doesn’t just start with A…Awareness does.