Missy Berggren's preparation for her daughter's upcoming entry into kindergarten started long before school supplies hit the shelves at Target.
Her daughter, 5, has severe food allergies to eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. Exposure can be deadly. So, Berggren, a parent advocate and board member of the Food Allergy Support Group of Minnesota, set out to safeguard her daughter beginning with researching school policies and practices before deciding on a school, and, then, partnering with the school administration and teacher.
"My goal is to empower my daughter to live as normal of a life as possible, with some extra planning to make sure she is safe and feels included. We always plan ahead to avoid a food allergy reaction but also need to be prepared if something happens," Berggren said.
Berggren was most attracted to a school that does not use food in the curriculum and where there are wellness policies in place that limit or don't allow treats on birthdays and holidays. Most schools in Minnesota still allow that, Berggren said. Her daughter will eat lunches packed at home at a peanut-free table, and will be reminded never to share food with other children.
Berggren is working with the Kindergarten teacher to make sure classroom snacks are safe for her daughter. She also shared books from her personal library, such as the "Alexander the Elephant" series about food allergies, which the teacher plans to read to the class.
Her daughter recently spent four days at the school's KinderKamp preparing for kindergarten. When Berggren dropped her off, she reviewed the allergy action plan and emergency medicines with the teacher. All the students washed their hands with soap and water when entering the classroom.
Before school begins in the fall, the family met with an allergist to review the child's medical condition and to have the appropriate paperwork filled out for school. A special school meeting is planned with the principal, school nurse, teacher and other key staff to talk in detail about the child's food allergies, how to spot and treat a reaction, and how to make sure she feels physically and emotionally safe.
While food allergies are becoming more common -- one in 13 kids has one, which equals about two kids per classroom – there is still the danger of being picked on or teased.
When other kids ask her about eating different food, she often says, matter-of-factly, that she has food allergies and needs her own food, Berggren said.
"In her mind, she's a normal kid and she doesn't want the emphasis to be on her food allergies and neither do I," Berggren said. "I work really hard to make sure she feels included and that at this age, 5, she doesn't feel treated differently."
Here are some tips on how to navigate school with food allergies. Here are more age-specific tools to teach kids about food allergies. Here are suggestions on how to navigate the holidays with food allergies.