One in 13 children have a food allergy according to the latest research, with the Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) reporting that the economic cost of children’s food allergies is nearly $25 billion per year.
The CDC reported that food allergies result in more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children under the age of 18, many cases coming as a result of school-related exposure
That’s why it’s important that school cafeterias across the country have a plan in place to better convey possible food allergens to children.
“Cafeterias have a particularly difficult problem because they serve so many people in such a short time in an environment where social interactions and play are more important than the food (at least for the students),” says Steven Gendel, PhD, VP, Division of Food Allergens, IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group. “On the other hand, they serve the same people every day so that they can have a safety program that works all year.”
Nick Manzo, global omnichannel lead for 1WorldSync, a product data management company, notes that unfortunately, many school support staff and healthcare providers don’t have transparent access to the nutritional and ingredient information necessary to keep kids with serious or life-threatening allergies safe.
“Outdated and incomplete information on product labels is a major cause of serious health complications when treating allergic reactions and other life-threatening diseases such as diabetes,” he says. “It’s critical for not only the students to have access to accurate nutritional facts so they know what they’re putting in their bodies, but that lunch staff, nurses, and supporting medical staff can trust that the source of that information is trusted when treating a student in need.”
Fare has released a practical guide that helps parents successfully transition their child into schools, detailing the importance of forming a partnership between a team of key individuals that includes the school nurse, teachers, administrators, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, transportation staff, coaches, other parents, and a child’s classmates.
Mary Jane Marchisotto, FARE’s senior vice president of research and operations, notes all of these individuals play a role in proper food allergy management, and it shouldn’t all be left on the cafeteria workers’ shoulders.
“Everyone needs to recognize that this is a real problem and be ready to talk about it,” she says. “If schools and cafeteria managers really listen to parents and children, they will find that both the parents and children want to help them find solutions.”
Experts believe that the best teaching tools will depend on the ages involved, the size of the school, and the characteristics of the community. Schools can even partner with organizations like FARE and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT) to get help and resources.
“It’s important that everyone in the food service chain is trained on the importance of allergen control and on the specific policies in their district and school,” Gendel says. “Information and training should be given to all teachers, administrators and staff so that they know what to do (and what not to do) in an emergency.”
The key word to a successful plan is “transparency.” Gendel says that the details of the system are not as important as ensuring that all the information is there and that it is shared with everyone involved.
Manzo says school districts must capture and continually update their suppliers’ product information to better convey possible food allergens.
“Many schools will obtain labels from the food service distributors they partner with and publish them to a web library accessible by students and parents,” he says. “While this is helpful to a certain extent, often times products are substituted based on availability or have been reformulated or packaged differently with varying serving sizes. This affects the ingredients and nutritional facts label, which school districts are often unaware of or unable to update in their libraries in real time.”
In order to ensure food allergens can be accurately articulated to children and their parents, school districts should be providing traceable nutritional information that comes from a trusted and reliable provider. Enabling access to a robust repository of accurate, consistent product information will enable everyone to stay informed and safe.
By partnering with food service suppliers that take product transparency seriously by investing in trusted data management systems, Manzo adds, cafeteria and school employees have the opportunity to show every nutritional aspect of their products, from allergens, organic, and GMO claims, allowing the conversation to move away from responding to food-based emergency situations, and more towards facilitating prevention and maintenance.