One surprising way your PTA/PTO might not be as welcoming as you thought…
School events and food seem to go hand-in-hand. Pizza parties, cookie decorating, Muffins with Mom, Donuts with Dad, International Family Nights with bread, pasta and more! YUM!!! It all sounds so much fun! Everyone loves food, right? I mean, isn’t that what we are told, food is what entices family participation?
Unless your family deals with food allergies…
If you are like me and my family…
It seems like everywhere we turn, every event that is planned, food (and potential) allergens are lurking – like the big ugly monsters they are. When I see a note advertising the next “fun” family event at school offering “tasty treats from around the world”, I do not feel excited. Nope, I feel the opposite. UGH!
You can’t expect the world to revolve around you!
I think there is this general notion out “there” that food allergy moms/dads/families expect the world to change because we can’t safely have or be around one food or another. You’ve seen the posts on Facebook that start with, “Why can’t my kid have a pb&j sandwich but your kid….” Or “Your food allergy kid is taking all of the fun out of our school!” Those comments sting, they hurt a lot.
Trust me, nothing in the world of food allergies is fun for us. Like, nothing at all! I want to be sure to stress that most families who deal with food allergies (or even a food intolerance) do not at all expect the world to revolve around them. We are all vividly aware that the world is full of the things that make us or our kids sick.
It all boils down to the fact that we simply want our kids, our families to be safe, stay well, and feel included. Easier said than done, am I right?
Why is this important to me?
My family deals with Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and the annoying issue of cross-contamination concerns. We also deal with allergies to dairy, eggs, & citrus. Food dyes are something we need to avoid for one of our children as much as possible as well!
Thankfully for us, our allergies are not anaphylactic. That means we don’t have to be so cautious. The risk of having an upset tummy is nothing compared to what families who live with more serious, life-threatening, allergies face every day of the year. Still, there are risks. Celiac disease is also not a true food allergy. For practical purposes, we can easily include it under the umbrella.
What does all of this talk about food allergies have to do with PTAs/PTOs?
You might be thinking, why in the world would my Parent Teacher Group (PTG) need to be concerned or even think about food allergies? That is the school’s responsibility to manage right?
Yes, you are right. It is NOT your responsibility to manage at all. But, what if the focus of your events OR the way you structure your meetings is actually turning away potential volunteers? Maybe, your PTA/PTO is losing out on volunteers and inadvertently excluding families from your events because of something as innocent as food?
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if your PTG manages dietary concerns effectively, or at all.
You can answer most questions with Yes, No, or I don’t know.
At your school are there children with food allergies? Do you know the numbers?
Do you have a lot of events planned that serve food?
Are many of the rewards you plan for school have a primary focus of food?
Do you have any members of your Parent Teacher Group with food allergies? What about their kids?
What language or tone is used when planning/discussing events where food is the focus? Do people roll their eyes when the subject of peanut allergies comes up?
Do you or your officers feel slighted because you can’t do what you want with your PTG because of your school’s policy on food allergies?
Are you aware of any staff members or teachers at school with dietary restrictions?
What about vegetarians? Are you thinking about any of them too?
Does your PTG struggle to find new volunteers each year?
Have you ever thought about any of this before?
Finally, ask yourself this…
Is our PTG doing enough to welcome ALL families into our PTG, especially those with food allergies?
What were your answers? Yes? No? I don’t know?
Your answers to these important questions are likely telling you everything you need to know.
Food Allergies are what got ME involved!
The MAIN reason I got involved in the PTG at my child’s school as early as I did was because I felt a strong urge to advocate for my child.
Even though I am a steadfast voice of support for those with food allergies and intolerances, it can often be very intimidating to speak up – even for me!
It isn’t easy to be the one to suggest that the event that has always happened or the food that has always been served is a huge turnoff. Usually, it is much easier to say nothing and just avoid, avoid, avoid. I have to admit, even writing this to you all has me feeling kind of nervous and sweating the possibility of rejection.
We’ve been really lucky!
As the protective momma bear that I am, I won’t involve myself in something or share my precious time volunteering at an event that will make someone in my family sick!
Thankfully, I have been able to be very involved in the PTG at my child’s school, thanks to the parents and staff for remaining open to my ideas and working hard to make everything as welcoming as possible! They are awesome really. We are truly fortunate to be where we are, surrounded by caring people who continue to welcome us with arms wide open!
I decided to talk about this subject because I want to help other families like mine find the acceptance that we have at school and in our Parent Teacher Group. I also feel encouraged to reach out to other PTGs and share my tips on how to be more inclusive to families like mine!
To help you and your PTG create a more welcoming atmosphere that fosters inclusiveness to all families, check out my 9 tips below.
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1. Poll your membership – EVERY YEAR!
Create an easy survey using google docs or survey monkey to accomplish this. Ask the families in your PTG and/or at school if they deal with food allergies, and what kind!
If you need more help, invite the principal or school nurse to get involved. Keep in mind that there are MANY families who may have an allergy or intolerance and the school may be unaware. Certain families may have a family member who isn’t currently a student at your school with a dietary restriction. Your school staff would not likely know that information. Polling your families demonstrates that you care.
2. Poll your teachers/staff to find out if they have any special dietary needs.
Here are some of the allergies we deal with/have dealt with at our school among the teachers & staff: Gluten, Dairy, Egg, Soy, and Garlic. Understanding their needs helps us plan the meals or treats we coordinate for our teachers appropriately. It has also built strong relationships with the staff at our school because they see how much we care about them and their needs.
Trust me, there is nothing fun for a teacher with food allergies who can’t have ANY of the yummy treats that the PTG coordinates throughout the year.
3. Don’t do what you don’t know.
If you aren’t 100% sure something is peanut free or gluten free, do not advertise it. Before you advertise that you are having an allergen-friendly event, make sure you do your homework first. For example, gluten can hide in so many places, even Play dough. That’s an annoying one for sure!
4. Appoint a food allergy representative.
If you are new to the world of food allergies and do not know where to start, appoint a food allergy rep. to your group as an unofficial spokesperson to help you remain mindful of families with food allergies. If you don’t already know someone who could help with this, ask the families at school! Sometimes what is holding back caring individuals is the fear of rejection. A personal invitation,asking for their help, can do wonders for encouraging a new volunteer to become involved.
5. Clearly Advertise
For any event that has food, clearly share what you will be serving so that there aren’t any surprises.
6. Keep food Separate
When you do include food, especially allergen-filled food, consider serving it in an area that is separate from other activities. At our school, food is usually kept in the cafeteria. This works well for keeping messes down, but if anyone chooses to skip the food component, they can still enjoy the event without the fear of having to navigate potential hazards to their health!
When planning an event like, “Muffins for Moms” or other similar special programs where food is obviously a big part of the show, include an area on a sign-up sheet that asks families to list dietary restrictions. You may even be able to easily accommodate individuals with these limitations at your event, so long as you have a clear idea of what the allergies are and have a solid understanding of what is needed to safely do so. This is where a food allergy representative would be especially helpful!
8. Food-free programs
I am not suggesting to remove food from all of your events. What about reducing how often you include it?
Separate from our own food allergies and intolerance, from a health standpoint, many of us would benefit from the option to enjoy an event without the need for food/treats to always be present. There are so many health issues in our society today, not just allergies, where families must be mindful about their eating habits.
9. Choose food wisely
There are SO many allergen-friendly foods available. The great part is, they almost always are much healthier options. Things like bananas, apples, veggies, and other healthy foods are easy to serve and often require very little preparation.
Popcorn is another generally healthy option that is often allergen-friendly, so long as you know what the ingredient list is. My PTG just purchased a new popcorn popper. I became personally invested in making sure I found popcorn packs for us to use that were free of major allergens. I mean, I want to make sure we can safely enjoy it too! (There are perks to being involved at school!) Here is the awesome popcorn popper we just purchased and the portioned organic popcorn packets. So far we LOVE it and got RAVE reviews at our most recent school event.
A few final words…
Don’t rush – take it step-by-step! You might not be ready to plan a 100% allergen-friendly event next week. Maybe that won’t ever be a goal/need for your PTG. Taking these baby steps will definitely get you on the right path.
Figure out your own priorities. Take some time to decide what the needs are of your students and families. The way to best serve them is to determine what makes sense for YOUR group!
I know you have so much love for your Parent Teacher Group, school, and all of the amazing events you coordinate throughout the year. I truly hope that I have been able to help you discover new ways to think about students/families with food allergies and learn how to effectively welcome them into your organization!
If you have any questions or need more help on this topic and/or sorting out where to go from here, I would love to help! Please feel free to get in touch with me via email or comment below! Be sure to subscribe to my page so you won’t miss any of my posts. Follow me on Pinterest and Facebook for more PTG love, support, humor, and tips to help your PTG thrive..and keep you sane!