Food Allergies and the Cafeteria: the Safe, Inclusive Options

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in Help & Advice, Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: September 12, 2019
Smiling girl sitting in a school cafeteria.
Photo: Getty

The pros and cons of what’s right for the food-allergic child in the cafeteria. 

I’ll never forget the time I volunteered at my son’s school cafeteria during his first week of second grade. Daniel was to sit at the peanut-free table – the only option offered to a child with multiple food allergies.

He was eating next to two friends when I noticed another boy at the table eating a peanut butter sandwich! It turned out this boy was seated there since he had other allergies, but I left the school feeling very unsettled. 

I’ve often encountered parents with similar stories. The idea of our kids being around their allergens without us is nerve-racking. And, the truth is, there is no perfect way to manage school lunch with food allergies. We do have options, though, so let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each. 

The Peanut-Free Table  

At least one study has shown that there is less epinephrine use in schools with peanut-free tables. However, monitoring the table and ensuring compliance is important. For example, will lunches be checked? Placing signs at both ends of the table as a reminder can help.

The biggest drawback to this arrangement is that kids with allergies are often sitting alone. If your child eats at a peanut-free table, make sure that a plan is in place to ensure he is eating with a friend or two. 

Keep in mind, the arrangement does not address the needs of the millions of children with allergies beyond peanuts or those with multiple food allergies. 

The Nut Table  

With this novel approach, kids who have lunches with nuts or peanuts sit together at what one school calls the “Nutty Buddy” table. The success of this approach depends on open-minded school administrators and cooperative parents.

The Allergy Table  

Many schools recognize that food allergies beyond peanuts and tree nuts are common, so they’ve implemented an allergy-friendly table. The original intent was to separate the child from their allergen, but with so many allergies it’s common to see kids sitting with other kids who are consuming their own allergy-producing foods (e.g., wheat, egg) at the same table. 

Still, this approach allows the staff to easily identify (and keep an eye on) students with allergies. Some kids will need additional accommodations. For example, a child with a milk allergy may need to be seated away from others consuming dairy products at that table. 

Aides  

Having an aide dedicated to an individual student is an uncommon accommodation for food allergies in K-12 public schools. With a very young child, especially one with a severe allergic history or developmental issues, it can be an appropriate choice if supervision is not otherwise adequate. It’s not easy to obtain an aide in public schools, due to the cost. 

With preschoolers, having an adult supervise at meals is wise. Toddlers are notoriously messy eaters, who may also share or trade food and are too young to understand the dangerous nature of food allergies. Over 60 percent of allergic reactions at school happen in the daycare and preschool setting.

Assigned Seat  

If an allergy table isn’t the right fit, it’s common to designate a corner seat at a regular table for a student with allergies. Staff can ensure that this seat is cleaned of food residue. Depending on the child’s age, the student (or staff) can make sure that the child sitting next to or across from her is not eating her allergen. One allergist told me that he often writes letters to schools recommending this arrangement for patients by second or third grade. 

No Seating Restriction  

This is the end goal for most students, and many ask to sit at the “regular table” as early as elementary school. To do so safely, students should know not to share or trade food, be aware of food debris and feel comfortable navigating issues either by themselves or with the help of school staff. 

Regardless of the seating arrangement, adults on duty at lunch, including staff and volunteers, should be aware of all students with allergies, so that in the event of an emergency they can respond quickly.

It can seem overwhelming to consider that your child can be within reach of foods that could cause harm. My advice is to make your choice based on your child’s physical, social and emotional needs and to keep this in mind: What’s appropriate today may change in the future.

Read More From Gina Clowes:
Exclude the Treats, Not the Allergic Child at School
Prepare to Meet the School on Allergy Needs – In 10 Easy Steps
Your Allergic Child’s First Sleepover: A Step-by-Step Guide