When Michelle O’Riordan’s daughter Ciara, a fifth-grade student at Birmingham Falls Elementary School in Milton, Georgia, asked her school principal to meet with her to discuss food allergy issues and the need for more awareness, she had no idea where her suggestions would lead. As a result, Michelle was asked to co-chair a new parent committee, the Food Awareness Safety Team (FAST), which is working to implement Ciara’s ideas and more.
Even though Ciara has moved on to the middle school and is in sixth grade, Michelle’s work continues. After all, she has two other daughters with food allergies in the school: Kaylin, 10, is in 5th grade and is allergic to eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, and Siobhan, 8, is in 2nd grade and is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.
Ciara, Kaylin and Siobhan
Kids With Food Allergies (KFA) caught up with Michelle to find out how FAST is doing in its second year, and to get advice about how parents can put similar committees in place at their schools.
KFA: What is FAST’s purpose?
Michelle: FAST’s goals are to work collaboratively with the school staff and leadership to create programs and guidelines that benefit all students with food restrictions. We currently have a dedicated core group of families that serve on our committee. In addition to working for change on our own campus here in Georgia, our long-term goal is to spread these changes and see FAST committees formed at other schools, too. We became affiliated with the PTA this year, which gave us a budget for activities, and next year we will become a part of the PTO.
KFA: There are so many things that can be done. What are your priorities?
Michelle: When we first met we developed a hierarchy of needs. For us, the hierarchy is:
We also decided to open the group up to those with any food restrictions, such as diabetes, celiac, high cholesterol or eosinophilic esophagitis. Food allergies still tend to be the main focus because this is the issue facing the majority of our children, but we wanted FAST to be for everyone.
KFA: What types of programs have you put in place so far?
Michelle: First, I want to mention some of the things that happened as a direct result of my daughter’s meeting with the principal. These are things that FAST really can’t take credit for. After that meeting, an allergy-safe table was created in the lunch room. The table is strictly peanut-free, but children with other food allergies are welcome to bring a friend who has a safe lunch to sit at that table, too. In addition, the school counselor started a monthly Lunch Bunch for kids with food allergies, and this group has now morphed into FAST Jr., which meets once a month after school.
We have accomplished so much, including:
• Made a Logo & T-Shirts – We ordered t-shirts for both parents and kids, and these shirts help to raise awareness in a more subtle way.
• Managed the FAST Jr. Group – The kids are currently organizing a campus-wide food drive to provide a local pantry with food that is safe for those with food allergies or other dietary restrictions (celiac, diabetes, etc.). We are scheduling the food drive to take place during Food Allergy Awareness Week. The FAST Jr. group is also creating a cookbook/resource book filled with recipes, tips on how to replace dairy and egg in baked goods, and resources like favorite restaurants and support groups.
• Avoid Birthday Celebrations with Food – Most teachers have shifted away from birthday celebrations involving cupcakes (this is also healthier for our students!) Those that do have treats give the parents 48 hours’ notice, and share ingredient labels.
• Provided Allergy-Friendly Treats at School Events – Students with food restrictions have been able to get alternatives treats that are free of the “top eight” allergens at the annual Dads and Donuts, Muffins for Moms, and Father/Daughter Ball events.
• Started Building Awareness with the Social Room Reps – These are the parents who help plan and organize classroom parties and events. Our goal is to help make them aware that there are students in their classes with food allergies and other restrictions, urge them to work with these students’ parents to ensure inclusion, and let them know that we are here as a resource for them.
• Got Invited to Speak Before Other Groups – The leader of a local youth group invited me to come speak because the girls wanted to know how to support their friends with food restrictions. It was such a positive experience! We even practiced using epinephrine autoinjectors with a couple of trainers. The group is going to donate to our food drive.
KFA: What advice do you have for parents who want to get a similar group started on their campuses?
Michelle: First, don’t worry if you don’t have a large group. It really only takes a couple of people to get things started – it can always grow from there. You can also try contacting your school’s PTA, as they may be willing to have the new committee under their umbrella.
Once you have one or two other people committed to helping you, I recommend that you:
• Share the Work – Rather than taking everything on yourself, recruit co-chairs for your committee. You’ll all bring different ideas and strengths, and will be able to support each other.
• Have a Plan – Create an agenda of the things that you want to accomplish and share it with the principal at your school. We decided that for us, safety is a priority – but safety does not always have to mean that other children must be restricted just because our children are. I realize, of course, that many parents of food-allergic children prefer to work to eliminate food from the classroom and other events, but we have chosen a different path.
• Take a Positive Approach – I cannot stress this enough. When you meet with the principal and/or other school administrators, don’t go in as a group of angry/demanding parents, and don’t start talking about legal issues. This will not go over well. Instead, take a positive approach. Strive to build a cooperative relationship. Let them know that you’re there to support them, that you want to help, and that you understand that those who do not live with food allergies may not understand what is needed. Talk about the things that the school is already doing that are helpful, and bring up your areas of concern and ideas for improvement.
• Advertise Your Group – Put an announcement in the school newsletter inviting other parents to join, and additional announcements about your activities. For example, any time there is a school event for which we are providing alternate treats, we put an announcement in the school newsletter letting parents know that if their child has food restrictions they should please contact me regarding substitutes. Once the parents do contact me I add them to FAST’s email distribution list.
• Have Regular Meetings – Our goal is to meet once a month, with the co-chairs meeting more frequently as needed.
• Keep Parents Informed – We know that some parents are very interested, but simply cannot make it to our meetings. To keep them in the loop we make sure that all information, meeting agendas, minutes, etc. is sent to our entire distribution list – not just to those who made it to the meeting.
• Keep School Personnel Informed – Any time we receive important information about food allergies (such as statistics, important tips for managing food allergies in schools and other facts) from Kids With Food Allergies or other credible sources, we always share it with the school principal.
I’ve seen such growth in our school this year, and I’m really in awe of how much we have been able to achieve in such a very short time. Yes, putting something like this together takes time, but the rewards – for all of our kids – are worth it.
KFA offers easy ways for you to get involved in Food Allergy Awareness Week:
You can also learn more about how to work with your schools to create food allergy policies and health plans that are inclusive and keep kids with food allergies safe: School Planning Resources.