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August 2012: New Law Helps Those Going Back to School with a Food Allergy

Today, as many as one in every 13 children under age 18 has a food allergy – that translates into two students in every single classroom having a food allergy.  And, an estimated 40% report their reactions as severe or life threatening.  Further, more than 15% of school aged children with food allergies have had a reaction in school.  Sadly, in U.S., every three minutes a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room for treatment.

Now, take that knowledge and think about sending your food allergic child to school.  It can be frightening.  So, wouldn’t you think that all schools would have uniform guidelines to help keep food allergic students safe at school?  Until this year, the answer in Texas was no.  As of August 1, 2012, that changes.

In May, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) issued Guidelines for the Care of Students with Food Allergies at Risk for AnaphylaxisThe Guidelines are the result of a new law that was passed in the 2011 legislative session, making Texas the 15th state to pass Statewide Guidelines for the management of food allergy in the school setting.

Under the new Texas law, the Board of Trustees for every public school district and the governing body for every open-enrollment charter school must adopt and administer a policy for the care of students with food allergies no later than August 1, 2012, and the policy must be based on the Guidelines.

The Texas Guidelines provide evidence based best practices for our schools.  Key amongst the many elements in the Guidelines are the following:

  • The Guidelines encourage school superintendents to designate a central office executive as a single point of contact to oversee the development, implementation and monitoring of the school district’s food allergy management plan and to coordinate the activities of the food allergy management teams on each campus.
  • Food allergy management teams are recommended at each school as multi-disciplinary teams to include a school nurse, the principal, food service staff, custodial staff, a counselor, classroom teacher(s), and bus driver(s).  The food allergy management teams work collaboratively with parents in supporting students with food allergies on the campus as well as assisting campus staff in implementing administrative procedures and student specific strategies.
  • The Guidelines call for a focus on environmental controls in the school setting including limiting, reducing and/or eliminating food from the classroom and other learning environments.
  • The Guideline call for training of school personnel on food allergy awareness, specifically on recognition and management of symptoms of an allergic reaction and anaphylaxis, administering lifesaving epinephrine, and enacting emergency protocols.
  • The Guidelines recommend that epinephrine be readily accessible in a secure, but unlocked area. Many Texas schools currently store epinephrine in locked cabinets, which may lead to a delay or inability to access this lifesaving medication that must be administered promptly to prevent a fatality.

The 2011 legislation was the result of the dedicated efforts of a small team of parents from across Texas with food allergic children.  These parents, from Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, working with advocacy organizations The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) and The Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), drafted the legislation, recruited State Senator Judith Zaffirini and Representative Dan Branch to champion the legislation, built a coalition of bipartisan support for the bill, and tirelessly advocated for its passage.

Mike Lade, a food allergy parent from Houston, Vice Chair of FAAN’s Board of Directors and a member of the ad-hoc committee that conferred with DSHS in drafting the Guidelines noted, “The guidelines provide all Texas school districts with the knowledge they need to understand and manage food allergies and the risk of anaphylaxis in the school environment.  Importantly, the guidelines address the steps that every Texas school can take to prevent reactions from occurring on school campuses, to recognize the symptoms of a reaction, to administer lifesaving epinephrine, and to enact emergency protocols when needed.”

Laurie Combe, the health services coordinator for Klein ISD and school health issues chair for the Texas School Nurses Organization said, “The guidelines encourage collaboration among all stakeholders and provide a set of proven practices that will make the entire school staff more efficient and effective in keeping food-allergic students safe at school. All schools in Texas will benefit from the new guidelines.”

A food allergy is an abnormal response to a food, triggered by the body’s immune system.  Even small amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.  Symptoms of a food induced allergic reaction may range from mild to severe and may quickly become life-threatening.  Reactions vary with each person and each exposure to a food allergen and the severity of an allergic reaction is not predictable.

While anyone can be allergic to any food, eight foods account for 90% of all food-allergic reactions.  They are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

To learn more about food allergies visit www.foodallergy.org.  Also take note that the 7th annual FAAN Walk for Food Allergy in Houston will be held on Saturday, September 8, 2012.  The Walk will be held at Hermann Square at 900 Smith Street (downtown).  Participation is free and there is fun for the entire family.  Learn more at www.foodallergywalk.org.

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