In our work providing services for families dealing with food allergies, we often hear from children that they experience social isolation. One young client told us that she eats lunch every day at school at a special allergy table and is only allowed to choose two friends to sit with her. This makes it hard to make new friends or get closer to existing friends.
A small study conducted by professors at the University of Waterloo revealed that allergies can have significant social implications for children. The kids reported sitting separately at school lunch, not being invited to birthday parties and being treated as an outsider.
We asked our Facebook community about food allergies and social isolation and these are some of the responses we got:
- My daughter wants to be a “ normal “ kid. It causes anxiety and depression.
- Eating is a big social activity and allergies limit that so much.
- Her best friend had an ice cream party and she couldn't go. Even a simple going out for dinner is fraught with anxiety.
- Without a doubt my son has missed out on numerous outings and trips. Plus watched kids eat cupcakes and cake, and pizza etc. at every bday party while he could not. It deeply affects their way of life. And now that he will be dating, how can he take a girl out to dinner!?!?
- Every birthday party, pizza party, ice cream social where the other kids are having fun and bonding, your child is necessarily othered.
- Some parents might be wary of having children who have severe food allergies in their house out of fear they might have a reaction.
- My son was allergic to dairy, so I had to stay with him at parties when he was 4, and bring home made pizza for him so that he wouldn't feel left out.
We recently accompanied a teen on a school trip. We prepared a fully allergy-safe meal for him, but the hotel’s menu was extremely heavy on sesame. Our client became anxious about eating in the dining room and chose to eat in a separate room. His friends noticed that he wasn’t with them and went looking for him. When they saw him eating alone, they chose to forgo their own meals to sit with him while he ate! At the next meal, one kid stayed with our client while his friends ate quickly and then came to join him.
But this is the exception rather than the rule, and schools should certainly do more to ensure that kids with allergies are socially integrated.
In Israel, there is a law that if one child in the school has a life-threatening food allergy, the allergen is not allowed to be brought into school. In theory, this creates an allergy-free environment and does away with isolation during meals and snack times. In practice, there is a lack of awareness in some schools and the policy isn’t being practiced across the board yet, but it’s a great start and a positive direction.
Canada has passed a law which “requires school boards to have all principals implement anaphylaxis plans that include: strategies to reduce exposure to allergens, procedures to communicate to parents, students and employees about life-threatening allergies, and regular training on dealing with life-threatening allergies for teachers and staff.”
While this law (called Sabrina’s Law, after a girl who died from a reaction to dairy fries she had been told were dairy-free) is a positive development, it doesn’t properly address the issue of social isolation.
In the United States, there aren’t any laws regarding bringing allergens to school. The principal can ask parents to voluntarily refrain from sending these foods, but he or she may worry about backlash and be afraid to make the request. And even once the request is made, not all parents will be careful about what they send with their child. School staff is constantly worried about the allergic child being in danger, thus the isolated lunch tables.
Legislation that requires schools to keep out any allergen which can threaten the life of one its students is good for the school and for the student. We hope that this becomes the law in the United States sooner rather than later.