All of us who work with kids want the best for the kids in our care. They’re our babies and we love them. None of us would intentionally put a child at risk.
- We carefully staff the classrooms.
- We buy the latest Christian books.
- We paint the walls exciting colors.
We plan our programs down to the smallest detail….building the city of Jericho with play dough, finger painting the crossing of the Red Sea, and making fun hay stack snacks to represent the manger. We want the kids in our group to love learning about the Bible. But, what if these well planned activities were a risk to the kids in our class.
It is estimated that 8% of kids (in America & Europe) have food allergies and many of these are severe (even life threatening) allergies. If you do the math here, that’s about 2 kids in every average elementary school classroom. And, chances are you have kids with allergies in your children’s ministry program. For the sake of reference, I have 150 kids in average attendance each week and I have 12 kids (exactly 8%) with food allergies – 5 have nut allergies (1 is severe), 2 have wheat allergies, 6 have dairy allergies, 2 have egg allergies….and obviously some have multiple allergies. Some parents are as careful to take with them the one of the best coolers and fill it with food they know their children can safely eat.
If you’re not concerned yet, check out these stats from ‘foodallergy.org’:
- every 3 minutes a food allergy sends someone to the emergency room
- 200,000 ER visits & 300,000 walk in clinic visits a year are from food allergies
- teenagers and young adults with food allergies are at the highest risk of death from anaphalaxis
- food allergies need to be treated immediately upon reaction
- 90 percent of all food allergies are from – milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.
- the most prevalent food allergies among preschool and elementary children are peanuts and dairy.
So, whether you know it or not, you likely have children in your ministry with food allergies.
Now that you know, what can you do about it.
Establish Written Snack/ Allergy Policies
Here are some sample church policies:
(1)”Here at ______ church, we care about the safety and wellbeing of all of our children and do our best to protect children with allergies. ________ church is a NUT free zone and all of our snacks are nut free. If your child has any allergies, please provide a safe ‘nut-free’ snack for them. To avoid cross contamination of potential allergens, no toys are allowed out during snack time and children’s hands are washed before and after snack time.”
(2) “___________ church will provide snacks for children ages 1-4 in their classroom. The snack is a simple graham cracker or cheerios. Snack time happens at the table and never while children are playing with toy. Parents are requested not to provide snacks from home as they will not be served in class for the protection of the many children with allergies. If a child has an allergy to NUTS, EGGS, DAIRY OR WHEAT, parents are asked to provide labeled snacks that will be given to their children. Children with allergies have their allergy indicated on their nametag and are asked to wear an ‘allergy alert bracelet’ which can be obtained from the sign in desk.”
As you develop your policies, you may want to meet with parents of children with food allergies to get their input. These parents have done all the research and will likely have great ideas for alternate snacks and will be happy to come in and educate your volunteers.
As peanut allergies tend to be the most dangerous, it’s wise for all churches to establish nut-free policies. Churches might also want to consider dairy and wheat as these two are also very common childhood allergies. Very few churches need to worry too much about shellfish :)
Educate Volunteers (and other parents)
Having a policy in place is only a small part of the battle. The biggest battle is making sure that all volunteers and parents abide by the policy. The policy needs to be posted, sent out to all parents, sent out to all parents (did I repeat myself??), sent out to all parents, discussed at parent meetings, and reminders need to be given frequently. You get the point.:)
Your biggest ally in educating volunteers and parents will be the parents of children with allergies. Have them share stories with the volunteers of what can happen in the blink of an eye when a child has a food allergy. It’s especially important for people to hear how just a crumb or a drop of something can cause a problem.
Here’s a story from a friend of mine:
My toddler has an allergy to milk. That doesn’t simply mean she can’t drink it. She also can’t touch it. One week at church, another child in the room had a sippy cup of milk. The cup didn’t seal properly and a drop or two of milk ended up on the toys. She then played with the toys and when we picked her up, she had a rash all over her arms.
Another idea for educating volunteers and other parents is to have a doctor or nurse (from your congregation) come in and talk about the dangers of food allergies. They can also talk about classroom hygiene and safety in the classroom. Sometimes having an ‘expert’ can help people to see the seriousness of the problem.
Identify Children with Allergies
If you don’t do so already, the first step is to have parents provide information when the register their child… name, phone #, where parents are sitting, any known allergies.
Once you know who has allergies, how can you make sure there is no chance they’ll get fed a food they’re allergic too? Allergies can be printed on children’s nametags, children with allergies can wear special stickers or bracelets (we use bright orange event bands that are worn on the wrist). Or you can order cute stickers like these online.
Allergy Friendly Snacks
Most churches choose a mostly safe snack (like pretzels or graham crackers). These don’t list nuts in their ingredients and are still readily available and affordable. These churches then let parents know that this is the snack of choice and allow an alternate snack from home for anyone who might be allergic to that snack.
For more information about potential snacks, you might want to check out this safe snack guide which lists many common snack foods that are free of peanuts, tree nuts and eggs. When choosing snacks for your church, please CAREFULLY read the whole label – read the ingredients and look for information about other products produced on the same equipment. Snacks produced in a nut-free facility are going to be your best choice.
If you choose to take it a step further and make all your snacks also gluten and milk free as well, you might want to look into rice crackers, rice chex, plain popcorn (be careful of choking risk), plain potato chips, marshmallows, or dried/ fresh fruit. Remember to read all the labels. Or, if your program isn’t very long and you have a variety of allergies in your class, you may want to consider cutting snack time out of your schedule, or making snacks for special occasions only.
Allergies (Not just at Snack Time)
- Children with gluten/ wheat allergies will also react to play dough. If you have wheat allergies in your classroom, you may want to ask a parent to make an allergy friendly play dough. Here are a couple of options… potato dough and rice/corn dough.
- A lot of babies and toddlers are developing allergies (painful rashes) to baby wipes and to hand sanitizers. For these children, ask parents about what they use at home and most parents will be happy to provide their own. One family I know used to write on their child’s diaper ‘don’t use wipes on me’ before dropping them off as a regular reminder.
- Overall cleanliness of your children’s area is also a huge factor when dealing with allergies. All crumbs and food spills need to be cleaned up immediately (gentle cleaner – like dawn soap- mixed with hot water). Toys need to be kept away from food areas and cleaned regularly (with diluted bleach in hot water – or run through a hot dishwasher). A chemical-free option for sanitizing toys is to use a diluted vinegar solution and then allow toys to air dry (in the sun if possible)