The choice for most people’s lunch at school, is – whatever they fancy. They don’t have to think about what they eat. They don’t have to worry about sitting next to someone who is eating nuts, or fish. They don’t have to consider the fact that the smell of particular food could actually kill them.
I do – and so do many more. Our numbers are rising all of the time. As children go back to school, and young people to university this month, please spare a thought for people like me. The chances are you will meet someone like me over the coming weeks or months…
What is lunchtime like for allergen sufferers?
I had to be extremely careful where I sat during school lunches. Who I sat near, and who I sat with after lunch, because if they had eaten nuts, and it was still on their clothes or their breath, and I got close to them, I could be adversely affected. As I was a child, this responsibility was taken on by the school and their solution was very practical – I was put on the Allergy Table. In practice it meant I was alone.
I’m not alone with this problem. Many young pupils are going back to school, after lockdown, being fully aware of their allergies, and how they cope. However, now, they have the added worry of COVID19.
I heard one young teenager who suffers from anaphylaxia, talking about how, in the past she has eaten lunch in the school cafeteria with her friends, and although that entails risks and concerns, she knew how to keep herself safe. On returning to school, she has decided to eat lunch at her desk, in her classroom.
Even then, it’s important teachers and classmates understand what do to, should she go into anaphylactic shock, and is making sure she carries EpiPens with her all the time.
The extra cleaning taking place in classrooms, is a positive aspect, if there can be one, of COVID19 , and will ensure there is no food or food contaminants left on desks. Also, social distancing in seating will mean that there will be less chance of cross contamination.
This will mean measures an allergy sufferer like me takes all of the time, have to be taken across the school for everybody. Perhaps school children like me will not feel so alone for a while? Perhaps this may, in time, make life a little less isolating for someone like me?
What was in my school lunchtime experience?
- At primary school I had to have packed lunches, because we didn’t know what would ingredients would be in the school dinners, and at that time, the food industry, and school canteens weren’t so aware and therefore didn’t cater for those of us with food allergies. Also, because it was harder to buy a range of allergen-free foods, I tended to have the same thing every day.
- Secondary school held different problems. We were able to buy things from the cafeteria, but if I was to buy anything I had to know it was 100% safe. Also, the canteen wasn’t a safe environment for me to eat therefore I would tend to be in and out of there very quickly and not stay to sit and eat.
- At some of the schools I attended, they had specific ‘allergy’ tables where I was supposed to sit during lunchtime. This made me feel terrible, because often I was the only person at the table, and therefore felt segregated from my friends and everyone else.
- Having to sit alone, because you can’t eat what everyone else is eating is awful. Just because a parent has given their child peanut butter sandwiches for lunch shouldn’t mean that you have to be sat on your own, feeling ostracised.
- Whereas most children don’t care about the mess they make during lunchtime, I was constantly scared about touching the surfaces. If I had come into contact with a surface where someone had eaten nuts, then it could cost me my life. Eating food should not be a scary thing for a child, but in my case, it was.
- One of the worst things having allergens, is that other children don’t understand how serious it is, and just think you’re weird.
- This lack of understanding has also put me in danger on several occasions. I’ve had children put walnuts in my pockets, or wave a peanut butter sandwich in my face, both as jokes, because they really didn’t understand they were playing with my life.
- There were some schools I attended who were so worried about the risk factor for them, they displayed images of children with allergies. Can you imagine being known as ‘the allergy kid’ while you’re at school? You are open for any and all kind of taunts and practical jokes.
- Suffering from allergies also hindered my friendships and chances to join in activities at school. I was often unable to play with the other children, because they had eaten nuts, or one of the other things I was allergic to. They don’t understand, and sometimes even their parents don’t understand, so I ended up appearing to be a ‘precious’ child who didn’t want to join in.
How can we improve pupil’s lunchtime experience in school?
It wasn’t until 2014 that legislation was passed where all food businesses including school caterers had to show the allergen ingredients’ information for the food they served. Making it easier for schools to identify the food that pupils with allergies can and cannot eat.
A food labelling law, which comes into effect from October 2021, will require businesses to provide full ingredient and allergen labelling on foods which are pre-packed for direct sale.
Both of these things should make pupil’s food experiences better in schools, but alongside this, schools could be encouraged to take more of a proactive role in educating the whole of the school about the serious effect of allergies; especially if they have a pupil who is a sufferer.
Parents, teachers and pupils should all understand it is not a fad, or a child being ‘precious’, but a life-threatening health risk. They also need to understand the impact their behaviour can also have, both negative and positive on that pupil’s mental health.
Already I’ve travelled around the UK talking to teachers, parents and children about my own experiences and the challenges I’ve faced – and how I try to overcome them and get on with my life. However life is team game, and the more we support, help and understand each other, the safer it will be for all of us.Follow me on: