Safety at the school lunch table: Protect kids from life-threatening food allergies

Every parent should be able to send his or her children to school without having to worry about a potentially deadly allergic reaction at the lunch table. But today our schools are ill-equipped to make that possible.

Approximately 3 million children suffer from food allergies. Any family can be vulnerable, whether it is Kyle Ericson, a 10-year-old boy from Madison, Conn., who shared his story with our Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families, or country music star Trace Adkins’s daughter Briana, who suffers from a serious peanut allergy. For reasons we can’t explain, the number of Americans with food allergies is on the rise, doubling among children from 1997 to 2002.

For these children, the risk for anaphylaxis — a catastrophic and sometimes deadly whole-body allergic reaction — is great. In a 2001 study of 32 fatal food allergy-induced anaphylactic reactions, more than half of these tragedies occurred in victims that were 18-years-old or younger.

The difference between life and death can be a matter of minutes, which is why the immediate administration of the drug epinephrine is absolutely critical.

Currently, there is no cure for food allergies.  Some children will outgrow them, but many will not. The only method of prevention is strict avoidance of foods to which children are allergic.

But with 90 percent of all food allergies resulting from eight, mostly common foods, ranging from milk to eggs to wheat, complete avoidance is extraordinarily difficult — and it’s complicated by the fact that school policies regarding the management of food allergies vary from comprehensive to non-existent. In fact, policies often vary among schools within the same school district, meaning a child’s health and safety may be protected in one school but not in another.

That’s why we have introduced the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act (S. 1232) to help keep kids safe at school and help ensure that there is an individual action plan for food allergies in place for them when needed. Currently, the legislation has 21 bipartisan cosponsors.

Our bill would direct the secretary of health and human services, in consultation with the secretary of education, to develop voluntary guidelines to help schools prevent students’ exposure to food allergens and ensure a prompt response when a student suffers a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction. The legislation would also provide for grants to public schools to assist them with the adoption and implementation of food allergy management guidelines in schools.

A handful of states that have enacted similar laws to ours, and many schools in those states — from Washington Elementary School in West Haven, Conn., to Edmonson Elementary School in Brentwood, Tenn. —have clearly demonstrated that managing food allergies in schools is possible. These schools have gone to great lengths to help children manage their allergies — from meeting with parents and educating school personnel, to organizing the lunchroom and ensuring safety on field trips, to training faculty to look for the warning signs of a possible allergic reaction and administer injections of epinephrine. Dealing with the challenge of food allergies takes time, resources, and a willingness on the part of the school and parents.

The need is clear. Voluntary federal guidelines are essential to helping school administrators, educators and parents ensure children with food allergies have a safe and healthy learning environment. That is what the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act offers — that is what it will take to protect our children. Together, we can keep our schools the way they’re supposed to be: a place parents trust, where children learn and have fun, and their only worry at lunchtime is whether Mom and Dad gave them apples or cookies for snacks.

Dodd and Alexander are, respectively, chairman and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Alexander is a former U.S. secretary of education. Dodd’s daughter, Grace, has a severe peanut allergy.