Against the Grain: Don't Be a Monster
“Dylan, sit down! You are not to be next to the food! Sit Down and don’t get up again!” The teacher’s voice was sharp and impatient, clearly uninterested in Dylan’s protest as he meekly tried to explain, “I wasn’t trying to eat anything, I promise. I just wanted to see if there was anything I could eat for the party. I haven’t seen my mom and she was going to bring me…” “I don’t care do not go near the food again. You will go last!” Dylan, dressed in his Halloween costume, had a sad face, defeated shoulders, and the excitement of his Fall Class Party sucked completely out of him. He sat back down at his desk while the other super heroes, princesses, witches, football players, and ghosts continued to run past the food table without a concern, excited about seeing all the orange and black treats that were being put on display in the classroom. The smell of yummy food was in the air and for most students that was what the fall party was all about.
This tale isn’t meant to be scary, but it was for the mother of a young boy who just tries to be excited about everyday things that most kids take for granted. Dylan is gluten intolerant, which puts anything with wheat, barley and rye off-limits. While he loves class parties, classmate’s birthdays, and reaping the rewards when his class does well, this joy can be tempered by elements outside of his control. Those celebration pizza parties don’t lead to the same joy for kids with allergies. Most of the time when spontaneous cookies, cupcakes or donuts are dropped for the class Dylan can’t share in the celebration. He must ask, sometimes multiple adults, if it is a treat that he can eat. Most of the time, it is not and he takes the news with a smile. “It’s ok, maybe next time,” he will often reply. “Oh, sorry! We forgot about that. What can’t you eat, again?” an unknowing parent will typically ask.
As any mom with multiple elementary school aged children knows, running between rooms can prove to be very difficult on their special days. I had in fact dropped Dylan’s GF treats off earlier that morning and had asked another parent to be sure and let the teacher know about the sack under the table marked “Dylan GF.” Unfortunately it was overlooked and the damage done.
Overall, parties are hard for kids with allergies and it is really evident that they struggle in the lunch room. Education is vital to the safety of our children and also key in how we learn to tame the GF Monster. He doesn’t have to be scary and those who don’t understand him shouldn’t be food bullies.
The first time a mom called me and asked if she could order pizza for Dylan, my eyes filled with grateful tears. I can’t tell you what it means to a child or a mom when someone asks, “What can I get for your child or can I order from a pizza place that we can order for Dylan, too?” Just for that child to eat from the square pizza box makes their day. To be like everyone else, to celebrate and not be pushed to last because you eat differently.
In America, we tend to over-consume food and while we live in an age of information, it is also an age of misinformation with food taking center stage in the reward system. Candy if you turn in agree with the system altogether, but we have to dig deeper and find something better inside our reward bag than sugars and fats. What makes the whole body happy and healthy? What makes a party?
Will they remember the black and orange m&ms or will they remember the fun celebration? It may require more of an effort to create the fun interactions that kids remember, but wouldn’t that better serve those kids than the easy out sugar rush? A pizza slice, anyone?
In the United States, according to the food statistics website, statisticbrain; as of September 2012, 350 slices of pizza are eaten every second, and three billion slices of pizza are eaten every year.
I spent a lot of time at the school that year with the teacher and ultimately, the principal. The fact was that the teacher resented my child because he had to ask a lot of questions regarding food or had to use the restroom excessively. No initial progress was made with the teacher and Dylan, as carefree a child as you will ever meet, saw his self-esteem plummet and even developed a nervous habit that year with his hands. It’s difficult to watch your child become repressed for an allergy that they didn’t ask to have.
So what do you do? You dress up as a GF Knight. Advocate for your child, be kind but persistent, knowing you are the educator for the uneducated in this regard. You have to connect the person to your child on a level that they can understand. Ask questions that will generate self-awareness and empathy. “Have you ever traveled and not been able to go to the bathroom because you felt uncomfortable going in new surroundings? Had severe stomach cramps because you accidentally ate something your body couldn’t digest? Do you remember the excitement of your parties at school as a child?
Did you look forward to food at holidays? What can I do to make it easier for you to care for my child?” After multiple meetings, I made a breakthrough. By then my armor was severely dented, and at times I doubted my ability to wear this knight costume. I admit that many times, I wanted to be in a witch costume instead, and threaten everyone with my broom! But persistence paid off; Dylan’s teacher started buying gluten free treats for him and I bought treats to keep in the teacher’s lounge freezer for surprise parties.
Beyond this small victory, I am amazed at how school districts are starting to work with students and their families regarding allergies. Peanut allergy awareness is becoming the norm with separate tables at lunch and we were given an approved list of foods for peanut allergies at the ‘back to school night’ this year. We were excited and encouraged to learn that our district now offers a gluten free lunch program! Dylan was elated to hear of this change in the lunch room for his 4th grade year.
So let’s have a Monster Pizza Party; let’s fight vampires that suck the fun out of having an allergy and scream with laughter as we celebrate fall, back to school, and educating others about gluten intolerance and other critical food allergies.
Here is Dylan’s favorite alternative to pizza on busy back to school nights – Monster Pizza Bake and Vampire Killer Bread.