How To Prepare For A Dye-Free School Year
I’ve got some good news of the dye-free kind to lay on ya. I am happy to report that so far, our new school year was a lot easier than I had expected. My daughter started back a week ago, which is still a little weird to me (why not September, like Hogwarts, err, the Seventies?). And we got through the adjustment of the first week with flying colors, thanks to some preparation and terrific school support. I hope that this post helps you do the very same.
Orientation day was the Wednesday before school started, and I was as nervous as my child. Her new teacher has many decades of experience, and happens to be Teacher Of The Year. I had heard great things about her from the Nutrition & Wellness Committee, so I was thrilled with this lucky score. My daughter had some issues with attention last year, preferring to socialize or doodle (she takes after me in that way). By the second day, the teacher had picked up on this, and by the end of the first week, my daughter was already doing some great listening, showing improvements with motivation, and following instructions. She LOVES her teacher! This year, I know she’s in good hands.
I stopped by the new school counselor’s office and the new school nurse’s office. That’s right, this year we got a new nurse AND a new counselor. This was another reason I was nervous, but it turned out better than I anticipated…in fact, I feel like I hit the jackpot of school staff. Both of them were super understanding, supportive, and progressive. The new nurse has a gluten-sensitive child, so she can relate to having special needs for an allergic child. She went over my daughter’s file between Orientation Day and the first day of school, and gave me some suggestions.
There is a LOT of information in this post, so let’s get to it. I’ll pass along what I’ve learned here in hopes that it will make your transition as smooth as possible. Much of the information I’m providing will be applicable to any type of allergy. Please feel free to share your strategies and tips in a comment…
Submit an Allergy Action Plan form. This is the biggie…the one thing that will require that your school community take notice of your kid’s allergy. If you’re worried about your child being exposed to dyes at school, then you need one of these.
In our school, the nurse reviewed our file and suggested that I submit a 504 Allergy Action Plan form. She read my mind…awesome. Our form was two pages long, and it required us to report any medical conditions; Evaluate each as to acuteness, permanence, severity, and length of history; Describe all possible allergic reactions; Report how an allergic reaction could affect her attendance, academics, attention, alertness, and participation; And give instructions on how to treat an exposure. You can get this form from your school counselor. Provide your emergency contact information, and instructions on how to operate special equipment such as an Epi-Pen or inhaler. A doctor’s signature and contact information are required. Time Saving Tip: Go ahead and fill out the entire form yourself, and just give it to the doctor for his or her signature – this will really speed things up. Mine was ready within the same day.
On our 504 form, I specified that our daughter is not allowed to buy any school food in the cafeteria without our approval, she is only allowed to have foods and drinks that are provided by us, she is not to be given any dyed medications, and that no topical lotions, sanitizers, temporary tattoos, face paints, or ointments are to be applied to her skin without our prior approval. I also asked that she be given proper protection during any art projects that would put her in contact with dyes from markers and paints. And, I asked for 24 hours notice of any school parties or food-related events, so that we can provide safe replacements.
I asked that they call me first if there is an exposure, and then give dye-free Benadryl if I cannot be there within a reasonable amount of time.
Make enough copies of your action plan for the front office, nurse, counselor, art teacher, cafeteria manager, and your child’s teacher. We had an incident near the end of last year when my daughter bought a chocolate ice cream pop without my permission. She did not read the ingredient label as she usually would, and this was before I had submitted a 504 form. These things happen, so it’s nice to be prepared with a plan that you can share with the cafeteria staff.
I provided several copies of her school picture so that the staff can attach one to each copy of the 504 plan, to be posted in each relevant area of the school (cafeteria, art room, and classroom).
Expect to attend a meeting with the counselor and other relevant staff after you submit your 504 form.
Bring dye-free medications and a permission form. If you feel comfortable with the school nurse administering dye-free Benadryl during a reaction when you can’t be there right away, then you must provide the dye-free medicine to the nurse (check the expiration date), and sign a form giving them permission to administer it to your kid. Our form was only a half a page long, and had to be signed by our pediatrician just like the 504 plan. You will give instructions there on how much of the medicine to give, and how often.
Write a letter. I brought an introductory letter to the teacher on Orientation Day, explaining my daughter’s food issues (see the PDF here). In the letter, I listed the names of specific additives we avoid, provided our emergency contact information, and gave brief instructions for how to handle an exposure. I verbally explained my daughter’s reactions when I met with the teacher in person. These details are also in our 504 form. I made copies for the school office, the nurse, and the counselor.
Some advice on the letter – keep it brief, if at all possible. It’s best to describe what you need to convey in as few words as possible. This is a letter that will introduce your child’s teacher to her specific needs, so you want to make it easy for the teacher to understand and buy in.
Your letter may contain your phone number, your pediatrician’s phone number, instructions for handling craft supplies containing allergens, a request for advance notice of any outside foods being served in class (such as for birthdays), and restrictions such as: “NO food except from parent”, “NO food incentives” (candy), “NO skin contact” (tattoos, face paints, lotions, ointments, sanitizers), and “NO dyed Benadryl or other medicines”. Some parents even attach an approved snack list. Your tone, length, and approach are up to you.
Here is a copy of the letter that reader Nicole B. gave to her daughter’s teacher. Lots of great stuff there (Thanks, Nicole!).
Meet the teacher face to face to emphasize the importance of this food issue. An e-mail, letter, 504 form, or phone call alone will not do.
Call it an allergy. This will help everyone involved to take your child’s severe reactions seriously. After all, some reactions to food coloring are certainly life threatening, and you don’t want anyone being lax if one day, by chance, your child experiences trouble breathing for the first time.
Provide a doctor’s note. Tell the nurse or doctor exactly what words you need them to use in the note, such as allergy. As you may have seen on the DFD Facebook page, I provided a doctor’s note that states that my daughter “can’t have anything with dyes due to allergies”. Our pediatrician was very helpful and did not require any special office visit, tests, or examination. I am so very grateful.
Bring Supplies. Ask if you can keep a stash of safe frozen cupcakes, ice cream, pizza, or safe candy and chips at school. Luckily, our school stopped allowing in-class birthday foods. I still brought a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of dye-free Jelly Belly “Snapple” jellybeans (found at TJ Maxx!), organic fruit leathers, kettle chips, Unreal M&M-type candy (found at CVS, Michael’s craft store, and Walgreen’s), and organic animal crackers. I believe most teachers will be grateful for that bit of help. If the teacher is not able to accommodate this, then set up a “Trade Agreement” with your kid where they bring home the school treats to exchange for safe treats. You can also bring dye-free all natural crayons, dye-free markers, and non-toxic dry erase markers.
Sign up as Room Parent. This way, you can help plan for dye-free options at holiday parties. Even if all you have time for is a few e-mails with other parents, you are able to influence the choices available during celebrations so that every child in the class can participate safely.
Get a medical alert bracelet, necklace, charm, dog tag, or shoe tag. An indestructible tag with your child’s allergies and your contact information can be helpful in case your child is not able to speak for herself during a reaction. It can also urge school staff to take the allergy seriously. There are some very cool tags from Road ID and Lauren’s Hope. We ordered a gorgeous interchangeable beaded bracelet with pink heart metal tag from Lauren’s Hope because they don’t require annual membership fees, and we can buy more bracelets to switch out with our one tag. They also have velcro, water-proof, stretchy rubber, glow in the dark, and dog tag options.
Use labels. Get personalized, long-lasting labels for lunch boxes, clothing, water bottles, food containers, shoes, and book bags from Mabel’s Labels. They have an allergy label kit too.
Be knowledgeable about and follow applicable federal laws including ADA, IDEA, Section 504, and FERPA and any state laws or district policies that apply.
Know where the nearest hospitals are.
Update your emergency contact information and documentation on file.
Take one long shopping trip for snacks and lunch stuff, or order through online co-ops and Amazon. Always get your kid’s input on what to buy. Read every ingredient label, and avoid anything that you can’t pronounce or understand. Use shopping apps and websites like Fooducate, Label Watch, Food Facts, the IATP Brain Food Selector, and CSPI’s Chemical Cuisine app. Also, print out or view my simple Badditives list on your smartphone or tablet.
Roll play with your child to practice how they’ll read labels, how they’ll identify a reaction, how they’ll deal with reactions, and how they’ll deal with the peer pressure of friends offering them foods or drinks.
Teach your child to notify an adult immediately if they think they’ve eaten an off-limits additive, or if they’re feeling symptoms.
Be aware of all upcoming school trips and events involving food on the teacher’s calendar.
Ask if all of the field trip bus drivers carry communication devices at all times.
Tell your child to never, ever go off alone anywhere during field trips or at school.
Teach your child to never trade food, drinks, and snacks with friends.
Check expiration dates on all approved medications.
Pack snacks and lunches from home if you cannot verify the ingredients in school foods.
After an exposure incident, meet with your child and her teacher to discuss what went well, or what could use improvement.
Join the Nutrition and Wellness Committee. Even if you can only attend one or two meetings or events each year, it could be a great place to spark conversations with other parents, and to get to know your school staff. Find out how your school stacks up with other districts, give your ideas, and help shape your district’s Wellness Policy. You could lend your expertise in grant writing, gardening, contests, public relations, physical fitness, health care, marketing, fundraising (and menu planning for the “competitive foods” that are sold at fundraisers and sporting event concessions during school hours), graphic arts, cooking, photography, newsletter writing, and allergies.
After things are going along smoothly, ask if you can host a nutrition display on your school’s Science Night. Here is my video of how we set ours up this past year. It was a lot of fun and the parents asked really great questions. For more information, see my blog post summary, “Science Is Awesome”, here.
Suggestions for Schools
I know our school is awesome compared to many, and long gone are the days of Spicoli ordering pizzas in Mr. Hand’s class, but there is always a little room for tweaking here and there. I’d like to just put a few things out there in case other school districts and teachers are reading this post. Talk to your own school personnel and give them your ideas. Suggest that all parents bring their own kids’ snacks, that the school discontinue giving out food rewards, that in-class birthday parties be discontinued, that the cafeteria should offer healthy lunch options such as fewer ice creams and more salads, and that vending machines either be removed or filled only with fresh whole foods.
And while you’re doing all that suggesting, this little tidbit could be of interest to school districts that wish to apply for USDA grants – The USDA won’t necessarily give you the money until you stop giving out food rewards. Free money. That’s hard to pass up!
And I do not believe that food is the only reward that kids of all ages can appreciate. Because if you don’t make the food accessible to all the kids, then that theory is baseless. There are other ways to reward, if you can get creative with it…Start here, here, here and here. That’s a whole lot of alternatives…there’s no reason why food still needs to be used as a reward.
Plus, a “No food” policy just seems easier. It respects everyone’s allergies, religious preferences, and budgets.
To learn more about why so many parents are taking all of the above steps to avoid food coloring, read “12 Signs Your Family Has Food Coloring Sensitivity” and then check out the extensive research published by The Feingold Association.
Here are some online resources for schools, camps and nurses. And check out this National Association of School Nurses tool kit. See the USDA web site for grant requirements and nutrition recommendations. Even Jaimie Oliver has easy online toolkits for teachers and school districts.
Need some more inspiration? Watch this amazing video of a school that ditched all synthetic additives for two weeks, with the help of parents and Sue Dengate of the Food Intolerance Network. Their results were awesome, and the kids’ own perspectives are eye-opening.
More resources for schools:
Teacher and student packets – Action On Additives website
Nutrition Standards For Foods In Schools – Institute of Medicine
Healthy School Food Options – Minnesota Department of Health
Help For Parents
Jaimie Oliver has a whole page of great toolkits for parents who wish to change school food for the better.
Also see –
The Anaphylaxis Committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
The Executive Committee of the Section on Allergy and Immunology of the American Academy of Pediatrics
One last suggestion, to get the message across to the other adults who will care for your child while you’re not around…get the exclusive DFD “This is me on food dye!” t-shirt, designed by children’s book illustrator, Sheila Aldridge. There is no way anyone can miss the point when they see your child in this shirt on their first day of school!
Lunches and Snacks
I’ll share some of our current favorites for the lunch box, but feel free to share your lunch menu in a comment below, too. I know that as parents, we often get into a food rut, and always appreciate some new ideas. I generally pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or turkey tortilla “pinwheels” as the main item. On the side I’ll pack carrots, pink lady apple slices, pear slices, pretzel sticks, blue corn tortilla chips, Fruitabu fruit roll-ups, popcorn, mini peanut butter crackers, organic fruit ropes and leathers, animal crackers, rice cakes, granola, dried fruits, and sesame sticks. I always fill a reusable water bottle for her drink. Plenty of parents pack dinner leftovers and even breakfast leftovers, like pancakes and eggs.
I’ll end here with a recipe link. This year my daughter has a later lunch – almost 1:00 p.m. Since she’s hypoglycemic and has been allergic to dairy, I had to come up with a satisfying snack that is dairy-free and full of protein. This recipe for Energy Bites from Gimme Some Oven did the trick for my daughter, and I love them so much that I grab a couple before a gym workout. I only added some non-dairy soy protein powder to the recipe for more long-lasting energy, and substituted peanut butter with Sunbutter because there are kids with nut allergies in my daughter’s classroom.
Good luck! Please leave a comment to let everyone know how your new school year started. Share your stories, triumphs, mishaps, advice, tips, recipes…anything.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” ~Virginia Woolf