Starting School With a Food Allergy

Asa starting preschool this past Monday. (It’s Friday night as I’m writing this.) I have so many things to write about but I’ve honestly been putting it off because I’m a little overwhelmed and exhausted by it all.

We knew this day was coming. She turned 3 in December and the plan was to enroll her then. With COVID, we decided to delay that start date a little. We finally felt it was the right time to send her, but our nerves on the allergy front haven’t lessened at all. How could they, really? This is the first time that she has ever really been with anyone other than our parents. We have left her in church Sunday school before, and honestly, even that brings me anxiety! But this is a whole new ballgame. Dropping her off, out of our sight, with complete strangers, knowing that we can’t be there to watch her every move is completely terrifying. It’s unlike anything I can even explain. If you have children, you know the anxieties that come with the first day of school. Now take those anxieties and amplify them by 100. Maybe that can help give you a little taste of what I was feeling leading up to Monday.

We tried to be extremely prepared. We contacted the school months ago and I met with the principal to talk about our concerns. (Reminder that Asa has 3 major food allergies – milk, egg, and peanut.) That led to a conversation with the school nurse to develop an individualized health plan to go over what to do in case of an emergency. We agreed that Asa’s EpiPen would stay in her backpack with her in the classroom at all times so that it would be readily available in case it was needed. We agreed that 911 as well as my husband and I would be called immediately if they even suspected she had been in contact with an allergen. We went over the snack list and agreed that we could send in our own snacks from home just to control exactly what she could have. She would be given soy milk instead of normal milk in the classroom. We sent over her allergy plan from her allergist. I even took time to label her EpiPen cases clearly with her allergens. We felt as prepared as we possibly could be, but the anxiety and fear was still there.

I bought her EpiPen cases from PracMedic and labeled them with her allergies myself using vinyl and my Cricut 🙂

Monday came and Asa was SO excited to start school. She had been wearing her backpack around the house for at least a week and was so excited that she was going to school just like her big sissy. She couldn’t wait to use her new water bottle and go meet her new teacher. She was excited and filled with hope. We were excited but also filled with fear. I tried to occupy my brain by making her a shirt for her first day. She wore it proudly and looked adorable when we dropped her off for her first day.

Our big girl on her first day!

After dropping her off with tears in our eyes, my husband and I both started saying that we still felt slightly unsettled. While developing her health plan with the school we had asked about having all of the kids hands/mouths washed or wiped down after snack time to ensure that no allergens were left on them after they ate and drank. We were told that wasn’t really feasible. It wasn’t sitting well with us.

I posted on Facebook about Asa’s first day of school and asked for people to be praying for our anxieties and for her to be safe. A fellow allergy mom reached out to me and asked if we had a 504 in place. My response was basically, “A 50-what?” I had no idea what a 504 was. A 504 for food allergies is essentially a kind of written management plan that is very commonly used for several kind of disabilities or health conditions including food allergies. More information on them can be found here. She advised that we work on one immediately as they are legally binding and are more official than the individuated health plan we had already created (which was still a great first step).

I immediately started looking up information. I also posted in a local group on Facebook to try to find other food allergy parents in our school district who already had 504s for their children to see if they would share their experiences with me. I was in the luck! I had one of them immediately message me and then ask if she could call me. She talked to me like we had known each other for years. The food allergy community is amazing. Once you have a child with food allergies – you just get it. You understand the struggles, the fears, the constant worry, and you just empathize in a way that makes you want to help others. She told me that part of her child’s 504 includes his classmates washing their hands after they eat every single time. (That was funny since we were told that wasn’t feasible.) She armed me with a lot of great information.

I reached out to the principal, the school nurse, and Asa’s teacher immediately. We set up a meeting to discuss a 504 and talk about our concerns. In the meeting with them, I started by saying that I didn’t ask to have this meeting because I thought they were doing a horrible job. I was actually really impressed with the way our district handles food allergies and think that they are leaps and bounds above other school districts in this matter. I thanked them for their help so far. I then told them that they needed to understand that one small accident could lead to my child’s death. I explained that it’s hard for me to feel confident leaving Asa in anyone’s care when I don’t even fully trust myself. I have to double and triple check every single thing I give to her because I never know when I manufacturer that I trust is going to change their recipe or change their factory and make it unsafe for my daughter. I am constantly concerned that one little slip up could result in an anaphylactic reaction. I also explained that in her 3 years of life we have had to use an EpiPen 2 times. I said that the last thing that I wanted was for a teacher or a staff member to have to administer an EpiPen to her. It’s stressful and scary and I didn’t want them to have to go through that. I tried to be firm and blunt but understanding and caring in my delivery.

They were so incredibly helpful. When we brought up the hand washing this time, they didn’t bat an eye. In fact, they took it a step further and said that it may be better to just remove the allergens from the classroom altogether. (YES, PLEASE!) They are writing up her 504 right now and we will have it completed in the next couple of weeks. With the 504, it will follow her throughout the district as she moves up in grades but will be adjusted every year based on her needs, so we will have these meetings yearly.

I wanted to write all of this out because I thought it was important information for others to have. I know that we are all in various stages of our food allergy journeys. Maybe you aren’t even a food allergy parent, but you are reading this to be informed, and if you are – thank you! Seriously, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. When I posted in the Facebook group asking for allergy parents who have made a 504, I had several people comment telling me “504s aren’t for allergies” or “just talk to a principal”. Many people were immediately dismissive of me for absolutely no reason. It was incredibly disheartening. Along with that, I had a lot of allergy parents come to my defense and offer their support and help. I hope that this blog if one of those resources to those of you fighting this fight. I know the fears you face every day because I face them too.

I have still been spending this week thinking of even more ways to keep Asa safer. I added more visuals to her backpack to remind people of her allergies.

I don’t think that will ever stop. I’ll probably always be innovating new ways to make her allergies more known so that she is safer at school. For now though, she made it through week 1 and I feel more empowered after advocating for her and using my voice to speak up! I’m also super thankful to the food allergy mom who called me even when she didn’t know me because she encouraged me to do just that! (Shoutout Kristin!) And special thanks to Sarah who is always a huge support for me and messaged me about the 504 in the first place!! You’re a rockstar!! If you have questions about anything I mentioned in this blog, please don’t hesitate to reach out! Or if you just want to vent or talk, I’m here for that too.

The BugaBees – A Children’s Book About Food Allergies

At one of Asa’s first allergist appointments, I noticed a book they had in the room. It was called “The BugaBees: Friends with Food Allergies” by Amy Recob, and after giving it a quick glance, I jotted it down in my notes on my phone. We had just learned about her food allergies and I was still pretty overwhelmed (as if that’s gone away now… ha!). I thought to myself, “maybe this could be helpful later” and then I kind of forgot about it for several months.

When I was making Asa’s Christmas at the request of family last month, I remembered the book. Thankfully, her great grandma got it for her and we’ve loved reading it already!

The book focuses on the top 8 allergens: peanut, egg, milk, soy, fish, wheat, shellfish, and tree nuts. In Asa’a case, she has three of the top 8 (milk, egg, and peanut). These 8 foods account for 90% of all allergic reactions. In the book, each BugaBee has a different allergen. They talk about their allergy and focus on the fact that they can enjoy other foods even though they have an allergy. At the end of the book, there is a cool little section that has a page for every allergy where it really tries to help the child understand the individual allergen, identify foods that contain the allergen, and learn ways to tell people that they have the food allergy and need to avoid that food.

My daughter is only 2, so explaining her food allergies to her has been hard. I feel like this book is a great introduction for her and helps up explain the food allergies in a simple, yet effective way. It also tries to focus on the fact that food allergies don’t ruin all of your fun, which I think is really important as kids learn their allergies and start to see other kids eating things that they can’t. On their website, thebugabees.com, it says that the books “are intended to inspire confidence and camaraderie among the millions of children all around the world living with food allergies.” What a beautiful thing!

If you have a child with food allergies or you know a child with food allergies, this could be a really thoughtful and cute gift idea for them! I know we will read it more and more as Asa gets a little older and starts to understand her food allergies better.