It’s becoming more common for kids at school to share a classroom – or a lunchroom – with a student with food allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as one in 15 kids in the U.S. have food allergies – and those numbers appear to be on the rise.
The issue is a serious one because kids can become very sick or die from exposure to certain foods. But kids also may feel isolated or be bullied because of the precautions they have to take.
Some local schools and parents are taking a unique route towards promoting awareness and acceptance.
Kyle Dine is the world's foremost food allergy musician.
"I’m a musician from Canada and I have many allergies myself to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, shellfish and mustard," Dine says.
He tours the U.S. and Canada performing for groups like Austin Families with Food Allergies – and at schools.
“Ninety to ninety-five percent of my shows are at schools where the majority of kids do not have food allergies so I really tailor my content to how they can help kids stay safe," Dine says.
“Kyle Dine is every kid here’s hero," Austin Families with Food Allergies parent Nancy Flores says. “My son was diagnosed at seven months with allergies to dairy, egg, peanuts and tree nuts. And he had never eaten any of those foods so I was shocked beyond belief as a new mom to find that he was allergic to things he had never eaten.”
Flores says she’s tried to help her son just completely avoid these foods
“There are a lot of things I have to say no to just to keep him safe. We’re very careful when we do go out to eat. We have to talk to the managers, talk to the chefs if they’re available," Flores says. "If there’s even the slightest chance, we just avoid it.”
Dr. Allen Lieberman says that experience is becoming more and more common.
“This is becoming a huge focus of our practice right now is children with food allergies because it’s such a rising epidemic," Lieberman says. "We see maybe five or six kids a day with this.”
Lieberman works at the Allergy and Asthma Center of Austin. He’s seen estimates that as many as eight percent of kids have food allergies – but there’s no real evidence as to why.
“There’s no real explanation about why this is happening, there’s no treatment for it, there’s no prevention for it. So the only thing we can do is manage it," Lieberman says.
Managing it at home or at restaurants – under a parents’ watchful eye – is one thing. But out in the real world – or in school – it’s another.
“Schools can vary almost by district, by school, by grade, by class so there really needs to be a more uniform policy related to this," Lieberman says.
Nancy Flores says she’s worked with her son’s school to overcome issues.
“A field trip that came up at the beginning of the year, one of the locations that they went to was a bakery. So immediately we kind of had to put a stop on that and talk to the teacher and the administrators about how unsafe that could be," Flores says.
But all of the extra hurdles and exceptions can cause another problem at schools – feelings of isolation – or even bullying.
“Well, in third grade they teased me once and they started like singing/chanting, ‘if you eat peanuts, you’ll swell up and die,’” James Thomas Ahmann says.
Ahmann is in fifth grade now. And he says he doesn’t have a lot of problems with bullying these days – but he does have to ask people to not eat something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich near him.
“Usually my friends are really good about that and they move away from me when they have that," Ahmann says. "But sometimes when it’s their birthday they bring treats to school and it’s kind of an awkward position for me because I’m just kind of sitting there doing nothing and sometimes they say like, ‘you should eat this, it’s really good.’"
James Thomas says he just has to tell his friends “no thanks” – and try to explain his allergies to them.
Which brings us back to musician Kyle Dine.
“For me it’s really rewarding at the end of a concert, especially at a school where I play the song, ‘Food Allergies Rock’ – which is a really interesting title for a song," Dine says. "But at the end of the show when all of the kids have bought into the messaging and they’re really interested and want to learn more they’re all shouting out ‘rock, food allergies rock’ altogether and it’s so cool to get that kind of feedback. And, for me, that’s a job well done when kids are thinking this is a cool thing and it’s nothing to ever tease or make fun of.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on food allergies – including a list of common symptoms.
The Austin Families With Food Allergies Group holds events regularly. The group's big event is the annual FARE Walk for Food Allergy. This year's local walk will be held Saturday, Nov. 1 at Mueller Austin Lake Park.