The start of a new school year can be hectic for everyone, especially for anyone responsible for providing safe and nutritious meals to students.
When you work in foodservice in an education environment, your duties go beyond doling out juice boxes and ensuring there are varied options for breakfast and lunch each week. You also have to be on the lookout for food allergies.
It's estimated that up to one in thirteen children–two students per classroom–has a food allergy (and likely more, since many allergies have yet to be discovered).1
As a foodservice professional, you play an essential role in keeping students safe from potential allergens.
In this article, we'll discuss ways you can help prevent allergic reactions and promote allergy awareness in your school.
It doesn't matter whether you work for a daycare, elementary school, high school, or even a university. Certain steps should always be taken to help keep everybody safe from allergic reactions and allow students to focus solely on their learning.
How Common Are Food Allergies in Schools?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that food allergies among children have significantly increased within the last two decades.2 Researchers are looking for an answer as to why, and unfortunately, there is not a simple answer.
Schools are often a high-risk environment for children with food allergies, where accidental exposure to allergens can result in anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.
Nine foods account for the majority of all food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and sesame (the most recent addition to the list of major allergens). While some children outgrow their food allergies, most will have them for a lifetime.
The Basics About Food Allergies
A food allergy is an abnormal response by the immune system to a food protein that, for most people, is harmless. The immune system identifies the food protein as harmful and releases histamines and other chemicals to "protect" the body from it.
This reaction can cause symptoms such as hives, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, or even death in very extreme cases.
These symptoms may vary from person to person, but it is essential to know common food allergens so you can protect the people you serve.
The nine most common allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and sesame, but a person can be allergic to just about anything.
How to Prep For Food Allergies Before School Starts
Here are some tips to prepare for food allergies before school is back in session and some guidelines to follow throughout the school year.
Learn the Signs and Symptoms of Allergic Reactions–and Educate All Staff
All school staff should be well-versed in the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions to food.
Every school should have a protocol for handling such reactions, and all staff members should be trained on what to do if a student presents with a reaction. This protocol should not only be verbally communicated but also put in writing and posted wherever it might be relevant.
The kitchen staff should be specifically educated on handling allergies in the kitchen and how to prevent cross-contamination. Post clear messaging and visual cues around the cafeteria to remind students and staff alike to be mindful of potential allergens.
Plan Regular Professional Development
As new research emerges, staying up-to-date on the latest trends in food allergies is essential. That's why we recommend holding regular professional development sessions for all staff members.
Regular training will allow everyone in the school community to learn about new research, best practices, and changes to the laws related to food allergies. It's also a great refresher so everyone can review information they need to remember.
Remember that education is key–the more knowledge you and your staff have, the better equipped you'll be to keep students safe.
Make Sure the School's Medical Providers Have All Forms and Medications on Hand
Though this might not be your direct responsibility as part of your job duties, it's a good idea to double-check that your school's medical providers have all the necessary forms and medications to address allergic reactions promptly.
During the back-to-school season, take the time to review the school's policies and protocols for handling allergies and make sure all forms and medications are up-to-date. This will provide the necessary peace of mind for parents and school staff and give you some insight into what you should do in an emergency.
Make Sure Allergy Awareness Exists Not Just in the Lunchroom, But Throughout the Building
Creating a safe, inclusive environment for students with food allergies requires a team approach.
As a foodservice professional, you can work to facilitate conversations with all key stakeholders in the school community. This includes parents, students, administrators, teachers, and medical staff. It even includes the janitorial team!
Ensure everyone is aware of the school's policies and protocols for handling allergies, and emphasize the importance of prevention and preparedness.
Offer Meal Substitutions
It's important to have a variety of meal substitutions available for students with food allergies. Common allergens include nuts, dairy, gluten, and eggs, so make sure to offer a variety of options that are free from these allergens.
For example, if you have a dish that contains nuts, have a substitute available for students who are allergic. You can also consider offering vegetarian or vegan options, as some students may have dietary restrictions beyond just allergies.
Label the ingredients in each dish so that students can easily identify if there are any allergens present.
It's also helpful to have a note indicating that the dish may contain traces of allergens, as many students have severe allergies and need to avoid any possible exposure. Don't forget to label any packaged snacks or condiments–these can contain allergens, too.
Have a Plan for Field Trips
During field trips, it can be difficult to control what students eat, making it challenging to ensure that they remain safe from allergic reactions.
To prepare for field trips, collect allergy information from parents, educate staff members about the food allergies of individual children, and pack snacks for those allergic to common allergens that can be shared with the group.
If the trip requires a stop at a restaurant for food, do some research to figure out which ones will be safest.
Encourage Hand Washing and Cautious Food Sharing Rules
All staff members should encourage students to wash their hands before eating or sharing food.
Encourage students to label and store their food independently to avoid cross-contamination when storing or dispensing food.
Students with allergies should refrain from sharing food with their peers, especially if they are unsure about the ingredients in a particular food.
Have a Clear Strategy for Food Storage
Store allergy-safe foods in a separate section of the kitchen or lunchroom. Keep all ingredients and food separate and appropriately labeled to avoid any cross-contamination. For example, peanut butter, a common allergen, should not be stored next to the bread.
Install signage indicating that there is food storage for students with food allergies, marking it in detail and including any necessary warnings.
Come Up With Seating Plans
Have a seating plan designed to minimize food sharing between students. Keep a list of students with food allergies and their specific allergies to ensure their safe seating arrangements.
Students with severe allergies should be seated close to staff members familiar with their allergies and the symptoms that come with them. That doesn't mean that these students need 24/7 babysitting, especially if they're older–rather, adults should always be present when food is being served.
Create "Safe Food Boxes"
One way to help prevent cross-contamination and keep allergic students safe is by creating "safe food boxes." These boxes are reserved for students with allergies and contain pre-packaged, allergy-friendly snacks and meals.
This guarantees that these students have access to safe foods and are not put at risk by accidentally consuming something they're allergic to.
Implement Routine Cleaning Procedures
Routine cleaning procedures are crucial to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen and serving areas. Ensure to thoroughly clean all surfaces and equipment after preparing or serving foods containing allergens.
This includes cleaning utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water before and after each use.
Ask About Restricting Classroom Use for After-School Sessions
After-school sessions and extracurricular activities may also involve food, which can be problematic for students with allergies. The issue becomes even muddier when you realize that many classrooms are used after-hours to accommodate clubs, meetings, and other events where food is often served.
Consider asking if certain classrooms (such as those that students with severe allergies attend during the day) can be restricted to use for after-school activities. That way, you can ensure that these spaces are not contaminated with allergies after the janitorial staff has gone through and cleaned.
Celebrate Birthdays With Non-Food Treats or Prepackaged Foods
Celebrating birthdays is a common practice in classrooms, and really, it's a hallmark of our school days! As an adult, you probably have at least a few fond memories of your birthday celebrations at school.
Unfortunately, these celebrations often include food, which can be problematic for students with allergies.
Encourage teachers to opt for non-food treats or pre-packaged foods free from common allergens. This ensures that all students can participate in the celebration without fear of an allergic reaction.
Remember, Food Allergies Are Often Unknown
While some children with severe food allergies carry their own Epi-Pens to administer emergency treatment, sadly, this is not the case for all of them. The opposite is usually true.
Up to 25% of epinephrine administrations in schools are believed to involve people whose allergy was previously unknown.3 The risks are higher based on how young the child is–kids in daycare settings might be much more vulnerable to reactions from unknown allergens simply because they're more likely to be exposed to something for the first time there.
Whatever the case, encourage staff to be vigilant and pay close attention to any signs of an allergic reaction. Make sure that all staff members are trained on how to recognize and respond to an allergic reaction.
Managing Food Allergies Across Different Settings
The tips we've given you above are great general guidelines that can be implemented regardless of the type of facility you're working at–daycare, elementary school, high school, college, etc.
However, there are a few tips to keep in mind that might be useful in specific settings. Let's take a closer look.
Due to the young age of children in daycare facilities, managing food allergies is incredibly crucial. Staff members must be trained to identify and respond promptly to signs of allergic reactions. Here are some tips to ensure food safety for children with allergies:
Record known allergies in children's files and share them with food handlers.
Avoid cross-contamination by using separate utensils, prep areas, and cooking equipment.
Ensure that students are supervised constantly when in the presence of food or other potential allergens (like animals, latex, or bees).
Train staff and caregivers on the proper administration of epinephrine in case of an anaphylactic reaction.
Encourage parents to provide allergy-safe snacks and meals for their children.
School settings (K-12) present a challenge, given the large number of children and the complexity of managing food allergies. Also, there are often multiple rooms within the same building where food is served at various times of the day–not just the cafeteria.
Here are some tips for managing food allergies in the school setting:
Create a food allergy policy and review it annually with school staff and parents.
Provide training to staff on food allergy management, including cross-contamination prevention, proper food labeling, and handling of epinephrine.
Utilize separate prep spaces and utensils to prevent cross-contamination.
Encourage students with allergies to carry their epinephrine auto-injector and have trained staff available to administer them if necessary.
Managing food allergies in higher education can get complicated, as students may live on campus and have access to communal dining settings.
Here are some tips for managing food allergies in higher education:
Develop a food allergy policy and ensure it's visible to dining services staff and students.
Offer a variety of allergy-friendly menu options and clearly label them.
Train staff regularly on food safety and allergy management.
Provide access to epinephrine and encourage students with allergies to carry their medication.
Managing allergies at the postsecondary level can be more challenging since it requires students to have more self-autonomy in managing their food allergies. However, clear communication across the board can keep everyone safe.
School should be a place for learning, growing, making new friends, and, hopefully, a little fun.
It shouldn't be a place where a child has to worry about their safety every time they take a bite of food.
And if you still need help with how best to serve your student population with allergies, be sure to sign yourself (and your team) up for Trust20's Food Allergy Certificate Training. You'll learn everything you need to know to prevent, prepare for, and deal with allergic reactions in educational settings (and beyond).
With these allergen awareness tips in mind, every student can stay safe and enjoy the amazing opportunities the world of education has to offer.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Food Allergies
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Trends in Allergic Conditions Among Children: United States, 1997–2011
New York State Department of Health: Caring for Students With Life-Threatening Allergies
American Academy of Pediatrics: National School Nurse Survey of Epinephrine Use in Schools
U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Food Allergies