Journalist and mother to a child with severe food allergies, Alexa Baracaia offers a parent’s view of the school meals service managing her son’s allergies.
Now – ‘fess up, I promise not to judge – did that give you a sinking feeling? ‘Oh no, another helicopter parent’. Or a pang of worry at having to safely navigate another child’s complex dietary needs?
I do understand. When my son Sidney was first diagnosed, at five months, even a trip to the park felt like tip-toeing through landmines. He had a catalogue of EpiPen-worthy allergies to eggs, sesame, nuts, peas and more.
Cooking seemed fraught with danger: where had that spoon been? Did we check the label? My mother-in-law kept a list of cross contamination controls pinned to her kitchen wall. My sister and her husband – both doctors, perfectly sane – still WhatsApp me photos of food packets when we’re going round for tea. Just in case.
So I appreciate that it is a scary prospect to be confronted with a child who has life threatening allergies. I do know, however, that with the proper processes in place it is possible.
But I will want to talk to you first.
That’s because the one thing an allergy parent needs is communication. Wherever we go – restaurant, holiday, a friend’s house – there are calls and emails and a good chat through all the options beforehand. Usually, chefs and managers are happy to have the conversation; it makes it easier for them to have a menu planned in advance, and it takes the anxiety out of trying to organise something on the day.
If a restaurant doesn’t want to talk, insists breezily that they ‘have it covered’ or – worse – says there’s nothing they can do, then the alarm bells sound and we bail.
It’s no different for school meals. Scratch that – it’s more important. We’ve spent every day of our children’s lives checking ingredients, eyeballing who’s eating what nearby, wiping smears from tables. And while starting school is tough for any parent, the relinquishing of control for an allergy Mum or Dad is a frightening thing.
We’re only too aware of the statistics: it’s rare, but deaths from anaphylaxis happen. Milk, peanuts and tree nuts cause the most reactions, but other allergens pose serious risks too. It really isn’t just about nuts. Recent child food allergy deaths documented in the US show triggers ranging from blackberries to milk and shellfish. A 2010 study by the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) revealed that 20% of food allergy reactions occur in school. The report concludes: “A cooperative partnership between doctors, community and school nurses, school staff, parents and the child is necessary to ensure allergic children are protected.” Communication is key.
It took a year of Sidney being at nursery before I felt confident enough to let him stay for lunch. For the first fortnight I waited in the café across the road, mobile phone at my elbow on maximum ringtone (plus vibrate).
In the event the chef, Tony, was wonderful. He talked us through each menu option, each potential risk. Was the flour ‘may contain sesame’? Was the yoghurt ‘may contain nuts’? For the gift of his time, and for his patience, I am eternally grateful. He understood the need for communication, and he made a mean egg-free cake.
I know that many schools cater brilliantly. In 2014 I interviewed Evelyn Cook of Hampshire County Council Catering Services for the School Food Plan. She spoke of a central buying policy for all 500 schools in her control, with a strict ‘no nuts’ policy – no ‘may contain’ either – and a bid to source staple products like gravy and sausages that excluded as many allergens as possible.
Fellow allergy parents tell me of schools changing recipes for all to accommodate one allergic child; of systems ensuring the kid with the dietary requirements is served first, on a different coloured plate, but still sits to eat alongside his or her peers (inclusion is so important); schools where puddings are made egg-, dairy- and gluten-free to include as many children as possible; or where the cook prepares and freezes a separate stash of safe crumbles and biscuits for those with specific needs.
But there are other stories that show the vast disparity between schools. It’s a lottery, still.
There are the catering firms that slap a blanket ‘everything may contain nuts’ label on all meals. No discussion – just a disclaimer.
There are those that insist they are allergy friendly, reeling off a list of shiny new gluten-free dishes. Others that insist they can and will only cater for one allergy at a time.
Yet seven in 100 children have a food allergy, and at least 50% of those are allergic to multiple foods. The most common include milk, eggs, soy, nuts and fish, while legume allergies are on the increase. A gluten-free or ‘one allergen-free’ menu, in practice, signifies little.
There are those that only offer baked potato and beans as an option for allergic kids. True story: sometimes they forget the beans and the allergy kid gets a dry spud.
One catering company comes up frequently in complaints on social media. They fail to send menus for approval, insist they are catering for allergies when in fact theirs is an inflexible ‘one size fits all’ menu that is unsuitable for many. Food is prepared outside, and often the advertised meals don’t turn up. They won’t tell parents the ingredients in the dishes, just whether they are deemed ‘safe’ or not.
Imagine the huge leap of blind faith required to trust a faceless somebody with ensuring your child’s meal won’t kill them. That’s not communication. That’s not a working system. That’s arrogance. And way too much scope for error.
So my turn to confess – Sidney is in Year 2, still allergic to eggs, nuts, sesame and lentils, and he has a packed lunch. It’s not that we’ve had a bad experience; our catering manager has said he is happy to talk through options.
But, honestly, by the time I’ve sat down with his teacher, the SENCO and the school nurse each year, mapping out every potential risk in the classroom – craft with egg boxes, water fountains, snack time, who carries his EpiPens from the lunch hall to playground – I’m tired. I’ve decided to stick with packed lunches, and remove one layer of worry.
If Sidney ever decides he wants school meals, though, I’ll be looking for a proper conversation.
Talk me through the menus, your cross contamination controls. What happens if the chef is off sick, or a staple brand is switched for an unknown one? Do all the lunchtime supervisors know what he can and cannot have? Don’t assume you have it covered, or expect me to take your claims at face value. You may think I’m helicoptering, but that’s because I’ve spent the past five, six, seven years playing the role of air ambulance-in-waiting to my child.
If you don’t yet have a system, don’t panic.
I’d honestly much rather a school that doesn’t have a plan but is willing to listen, talk, and work one out, than one that claims to have it all sorted and keeps me at arm’s length.