STARTING school is naturally both an exciting and daunting milestone for children and their families. However, the common concerns many parents feel as their kids enter the playground in September can reach a whole new level when a child has a life-threatening food allergy.
Sadly, kids’ food allergies are on the rise, with up to two pupils in every UK classroom now affected, according to charity, Allergy UK.
The nurturing environment of the reception classroom can seem like a minefield of terrifying unknowns to parents – especially if their child has multiple food allergies. The thought of leaving them exposed to the risk of a reaction can be a living nightmare – what’s more, experts are claiming that the fear of an attack and feeling different to friends can have a huge impact on a child’s mental well-being.
Fellow allergy mums and businesswomen, Kirsty Dingwall and Natalie Hopkins, both understand these challenges only too well. Their own personal allergy journeys are the driving forces behind their companies, and they are now supporting schools, with a FREE, nationwide allergy training course, launching in Back-to-School week.
Kirsty is the founder of the top-14-allergen-free biscuit brand, Angelic. Her son Joshua had multiple food allergies from a young age, and Angelic was born out of her frustration at the lack of safe and inclusive snacking options that allergy parents could rely on. This insight led to Kirsty recently launching Angelic Safetylicious Squares into Sainsbury’s and Ocado – the first ‘School-Safe’ biscuit specifically developed for kids’ lunchboxes that meets the allergy-free policies many schools are putting in place.
“Many ‘Free From’ products only omit one or two allergens and often feature a ‘May Contain’ warning, which isn’t worth the risk if you have a serious food allergy – we felt this all rather missed the point for the consumer,” said Kirsty. “Complete trust in the food your child is eating is everything and having such limited choices can make children feel isolated and different, so I set out to change that with a top-14- allergen-free biscuit that kids can enjoy in their school lunchbox – just like the snacks their friends are eating.”
Natalie’s seven-year-old daughter, Ella, has life-threatening allergies to dairy, peanuts and pine nuts. She is the inspiration behind The Allergy Badge – Natalie’s medically approved training business that provides allergy awareness and auto-injector training to both corporate and education sectors.
Like Kirsty’s Angelic Safetylicious Squares range, The Allergy Badge also addresses the mental impact of allergies, as well as the physical.
“Feeling included as a child is a huge part of my training in education,” says Natalie. “I think the mental health side of things is often missed with children with allergies. Our phrase is keeping kids with allergies awesome, which I really believe the training and allergy awareness contributes too.”
Angelic will be funding the monthly training to support all members of staff in schools and to promote safer snacking and inclusivity across school communities.
“We don’t just want to educate the teachers, we want to support lunchtime supervisors, after-school club staff and kitchen staff,” said Natalie. “Allergy care needs a school-wide approach. We should never just be relying on one single person knowing how to treat someone having an allergic reaction or how to put the preventative processes in place to keep them safe.”
Understanding and managing the psychological impact of allergies is something experts believe is critical to keeping children safe and happy in school. Dr Jose Costa, a leading Consultant Paediatrician who specialises in allergies, is seeing increasing cases of ‘food bullying’ where children are singled out by their peers for being different – and in some instances attacked with the food they are allergic to.
Dr Costa’s 14 year old son, Wei, also has multiple life-threatening food allergies, which prompted him to start his own business with insulated allergy bags for allergy medication, Allerpack, thus improving its safety of delivery, due to the prevention of medication degradation.
Dr Costa believes that supporting a more inclusive environment for children with allergies will promote a safer, more accepting one, and he is urging schools to register for the free course.
“Many schools default to approaches that isolate pupils with allergies in the interests of safety – for example, children eating on their own in separate rooms at lunchtime – however, it is important to balance risk with a child’s social well-being or we potentially face bullying and feelings of loneliness, on top of the allergy itself,” said Dr Costa.
“One of my patients had over 20 food allergies and a rare – potentially fatal condition called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, where the individual experiences repeated episodes of the symptoms of anaphylaxis. He was pelted with allergen food by the other children at his school.”
“With the right tools and information, schools can feel supported to promote a system of inclusion to protect these children from their allergies and nurture their social development.”
Starting in September, the online course will cover life-saving information around food allergies. School staff can also learn how to administer auto-injectors, recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction, how to put processes in place to keep people with allergies safe, whilst supporting their mental health and well-being.
Schools across the UK are already benefitting from the training and endorsing the support it provides. Speaking about the impact of food allergy management on schools, Pam Davey, Head of Bawnmore Community Infant School, in Rugby, said: “There are many challenges facing schools, including staff training needs, safety vs inclusion, support from the wider parental body and a general lack of education and awareness in the community.”
Pam agrees that managing the balance of safety and inclusion is vitally important and the training of staff is crucial to enable this.
“Whilst children with allergies need to be kept safe, it is also imperative for their mental health that they don’t feel excluded,” she said. “It should be possible to include children with allergies in all activities including parties, discos, school dinners, special treats, cooking activities etc – as long as staff plan ahead to make appropriate adjustments, working with the child and their family.”
“Schools are woefully inadequately funded currently and there is very little money in budgets for training. However, training is crucial to ensure these children are kept safe whilst still feeling included and welcomed. Staff often have misconceptions or preconceived ideas, and it is only through training that this can be identified, and staff can move forward in their thinking.”
“The training has been hugely beneficial to our school. It has given staff a clear understanding of what to look for in food labelling, the possible feelings and mental health effectsaffects for children with allergies, what to do in a medical emergency and how to work in partnership with families.”
“The course has allowed them to ask questions and develop their own personal knowledge and understanding of how to look after children with food allergies. I would absolutely recommend it and would encourage other schools to sign up.”
Kirsty and Natalie hope to train as many staff as possible in schools all over the country by giving them free, flexible access to the resource.
“With budget restraints tighter than ever, we know how much this will help,” said Kirsty. “We hope anyone reading this story, who is connected to a school – whether they are staff, parents or carers, will sign up so we can support as many schools, children and their families as possible.”
To register for the free allergy course with Angelic and The Allergy Badge, and more information, visit https://www.angelicfreefrom.co.uk/schoolsafe/
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