Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Turf battles over food in the classroom

After an entire school year of no real issues in dealing with parents of Ainsley's classmates over party food, etc., I have had two difficult circumstances lately, both of which felt like I was in a tug-of-war with the other mother in terms of trying to assert control over a particular food-related event.

The first was last week, when I was attempting to coordinate food for a party the kids are having for the last day of school. Ainsley's class is celebrating with another class, so I was emailing back and forth with the room mom for the other class about the food. Evidently Ainsley's teachers had already told the mom that a certain brand of chicken nugget was safe for Ainsley and the other food-allergic child in Ainsley's class. Asserting control rather early-on, the other room mom emailed me with a menu that she had already decided upon and told me that she had already solicited volunteers from her class to bring all of the food items for that class and that I should do the same for my class. The list included the safe brand of nuggets and also ice cream pops, which obviously aren't safe. I emailed her back and told her I would get the safe nuggets for both classes (I mean, if it's a joint party, wouldn't it make sense to have one person bring enough of the food item for both classes?) and that since my daughter was allergic to milk I would get safe popsicles for the party instead of ice cream pops.

Surprisingly, her response insisted that we stick to the "two sets of the same food" plan for the party, with the exception that I could buy the popsicles for everyone because I knew which types were safe. Okay, fine. Whatever.

A couple of days later, I get an email from this mom saying she is at the store and it no longer carries the safe nuggets the teachers told her to buy, so would this other type do. I emailed her back and told her I had no idea whether that brand was safe and insisted, for a second time, that I buy the nuggets. Her response: "I bought the other kind and will email you the list of ingredients tonight." Before she could even get the ingredient list to me, I corresponded with the other food allergy mom in our class who confirmed that the brand of nuggets the other room mom had bought was indeed unsafe. The other food allergy mom took matters into her own hands at that point and emailed the room mom, telling her that those nuggets were unsafe but that she (the food-allergy mom) had just bought enough safe nuggets for both classes. Problem solved. The room mom wrote back insisting that she reimburse the food allergy mom the $3 or whatever it cost to supply her class's nuggets. Nice gesture, I guess, but what would have been even nicer would have been to allow us to buy the nuggets for both classes in the first place.

The second moment of awkwardness happened yesterday. I should mention that, at the beginning of the school year, I emailed all of the class parents to let them know about Ainsley's allergies and offered to make something myself for their children's birthdays should they choose to have their child's birthday celebrated in class. I explained that, otherwise, Ainsley (and the other food allergic child in the class) would have to eat a separate treat and would feel excluded.

I got no protest and everything worked well all year, until last week, when the teachers told me that one of the other moms wanted to celebrate all of the summer birthdays (including her children's) by bringing cupcakes from a local bakery to school. Trying to be polite, I decided not to push the issue and talked with the other food allergy mom about sending separate cupcakes to school for our two kids. Then, yesterday, the summer-birthday mom sent an email to all of the class parents saying that "We" had decided on ice cream sundaes instead of cupcakes and asking whether that would work for Ainsley and the other food-allergic child. "We" meaning she and the teachers? She and her kids? I certainly wasn't included in the "We."

Obviously, sundaes do not work well for my milk-allergic child. More than that, Ainsley especially covets other children's ice cream - it's like her food-allergy Achilles heel. She doesn't mind when people eat most things, like cheese, around her, but if someone pulls out a fine-looking, forbidden ice cream treat, her face immediately falls and she stares at it with a heart-wrenching look of both wonder and jealousy.

I responded as nicely as possible, explaining that if by "sundae" the mom meant she'd bring a gallon of vanilla ice cream, some Hershey's syrup, and some sprinkles, I could probably concoct a suitable substitution by sending our soy ice cream, our syrup (Ainsley can have Hershey's but I planned to send our bottle to limit the possibility of cross-contamination), and our safe sprinkles. I couldn't help myself, though - at the end of the email, I explained that fancy ice-cream treats are substantially more difficult to imitate than other treats like cupcakes, but if that's what she really wanted, I'd do my best to create a good replacement for Ainsley.

Thankfully, the mom took pity on me and ended up nixing the sundaes in favor of cake - not quite as good as cupcakes, but I guess I'll take it. Now, of course, the other food allergy mom and I are emailing back and forth about whether we should send slices of safe cake for our kids or cupcakes.

I really can't wrap my head around why other parents have a hard time ceding control over the food in classrooms. I mean, maybe it's just me, but if my kid wasn't food-allergic, I wouldn't care in the least what the menu was for class parties or who would be providing the food. I would just be thankful it wasn't my problem. But apparently it is a big deal to some people, and they don't like food allergy moms dictating the menu even when we have legitimate medical and social reasons for doing so. I wish I could put at the end of every one of my emails to these people how much I hate coordinating the food and I'm only doing it because I've seen one too many times the look on my daughter's face when she can't have something yummy that other kids are eating.

If there's one thing I'd love those of you non-food-allergy moms to take away from this rambling post, it's this: Please don't plan the food for a class event in a manner that is sure to leave out one of the kids in the class. The kids are who you're doing it for, right? Then please include all of them. If it's your kid's birthday and you want to bring something to celebrate, fine - but please ask the mom of the food-allergic kid what would be safe for that child instead of arbitrarily choosing something and forcing the food-allergy mom to try and come up with a substitute for her child. I mean, why should we have to make a cupcake/cake/sundae for our child to celebrate your kid's birthday?

And if the food-allergy mom, in her generosity, offers to bring or buy something safe for the entire class, don't turn her down because you don't want to impose. Let her bring the food if that's what she is most comfortable with. It's her child's safety and mental well-being at stake, for goodness sake. The rest of the kids are not going to remember whether they had sundaes or cupcakes or cookies or sugar cubes to celebrate little Billy's birthday, but I can promise you that the food-allergic kid will remember (and be able to describe in disturbing detail) the yummy unsafe treat the other kids were given and that she had to eat something different.

Edited to add: My comments by no means apply to birthday parties. When we RSVP "yes" to a party, we know what we are getting into. We happily bring along a safe cupcake for Ainsley. We know that we are there to celebrate another child's birthday and it's totally up to that kid's parents what to serve at the party and what kind of cake to have, and we do not expect them to bend over backwards to accommodate Ainsley's allergies.

But this is why we only go to about 3 birthday parties a year - it's not a completely pleasant experience for us and we find ourselves constantly on guard in terms of monitoring the food around Ainsley at the party. In this day and age, however, avoiding birthday parties doesn't get us out of the trap of "party food." The whole deal about celebrating birthdays and other holidays/important days via a class party (e.g., Thanksgiving Feast, last day of school, etc.) is a foreign experience for me as I did not grow up with that. I think it's an unnecessary part of today's school routine and would be over the moon if most schools banned party celebrations involving food.


Nowheymama said...

*sigh* It's so, so hard, isn't it?

Food Allergy Assistant said...

This time of year, especially seems to be hard. So many celebrations and everyonetrying to make things easy on themselves.

Good for you for consistently delivering the same message. You have gone above and beyond to help make things easier for all. Keep repeating it over and over and over and...

Allergy Mom said...

Wow. You have far more patience dealing with the other moms than I do. Since my son has started elementary school, I just wish we could eliminate food in the classroom, period. Libby

Anonymous said...

Wow! That's an impressive effort on your part. I'm with you on wishing everything wasn't so food-centered. I do see where the other parents like to participate in the party planning though. That's a tough line to walk. I always try to have a safe special snack for my guy and appreciate when anyone makes a special effort to include safe foods for him, but I don't think it's all bad for him to learn that he can't always have what everyone else is having. The food allergy is what it is. It does make him different. If he had to use a wheelchair, I wouldn't expect the other kids not to have running races, ykwim? Jennifer

Leigha said...

Hi Jennifer,

I hear you. We can only expect so many accommodations. But the thing is, most of the time at school, Ainsley does have to have separate food. We send separate snack for her and there are some activities, like the Passover Seder, where the school obviously has to use traditional food that Ainsley can't eat.

But when there's a class party - which usually means fun food as a special experience for the child - I think all children should be included. That seems the best in terms of safety and in terms of the child not having to feel left out of an important part of the celebration.

Anonymous said...

I hear ya. I wouldn't be opposed to stopping class parties. My daughter is in Kindergarten (allergy to tree nuts and peanuts). So far (knock on wood) we have been lucky at school. The school has a peanut/nut ban in place for a few years now. However, no policy is perfect so I still always worry and send in my own treats for her. Her teacher is great, she happens to be allergic to bee stings, so she carries around her own epi and is experienced with it.

I have asked the teacher to give me atleast one day notice when there is a birthday in class, so I could send in something safe. I actually had two moms apologize to me, that their cake/cupcakes wasn't safe!!!. Only one time this didn't work. A mom came in to do a art progject and brought brownies for the kids without advance notice to the teacher. So, she didn't let my daughter have any. She loves brownies and felt bad and cried after school. So, then we made our own that evening. I do leave some safe candy/treats in the class just in case.

Tomorrow there's a bakesale at school. But the teacher is only sending the kids that brought money and telling them to wrap it up and bring it home.

There's was a boy in her class with the same allergy. So that worked out because, the other mom and I would take turns making the treats for our kids. But they moved out of state in March, so now she's the only one.

It's a shame that the non food allergy parents are not always senstive to the issue. We're not trying to be difficult, just want to keep the kids from getting sick.

Lately some of the moms are talking about summer camp. Unless I find a food allergy camp, I dont' think that's an option now (-:

Here's to a safe end to the school year!! Great Blog!!!

Kristin said...

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