Dealing With Food Allergies In Youth Soccer

A recent article over at CNN got me thinking a bit about food allergies and how they might impact a soccer association. The article is a heart wrenching tale about a parent’s discovery that they have a child who is extremely allergic to many types of food, including peanuts, wheat, and dairy. They talk about the ways they adapted at home, how their young daughter helped out, and how there were numerous times when mistakes were made that put their son’s life at risk. I can’t even begin to imagine the hardships something like this presents parents. But I was rather surprised by this section near the end when they talked about the difficulties they might face when he attended public school:

I hope that Teddy’s classmate’s parents won’t react negatively to the exclusion of pean­ut products from the classroom. I’ve heard parents freak out when told that no peanut butter could come into a classroom. “But it’s all he will eat!” one parent said, as if it weren’t possible for a child to live for a few hours without peanut butter. If an orange Crayola would kill a child, there would be no question about teaching kids how to mix yellow and red instead, but heaven forbid you ask a kid to wait for a peanut butter snack so someone in his class won’t die.

Wow. This brings to the surface a common tension among parents, especially surrounding the classroom, in terms of what level of restrictions are tolerable to ensure nobody has problems in class. It’s gotten to the point that many schools have just outright banned bringing in ANY outside food or snacks because of the wide variety of food allergies out there – it’s not just peanuts anymore. But I also think the author glosses over the fact that it’s not just her situation parents are having to deal with and it can be overwhelming and leads many to ask where we should ‘draw the line’ to ensure allergic kids are safe while not taking everything fun out of school or other activities.

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How does this relate to soccer? Well, as we all know, one of the highlights of soccer season, especially for younger kids, is the post game snacks. It’s ALL about the snacks :) When you have 700+ children participating in an activity, somebody is going to have a food allergy (recent studies note that 6-8% of childre­n having a food allergy). Does our league have a food allergy policy? No. The most common (and sensible) solution is for the team manager to alert the parents about what types of snacks are OK based on significant input from the parent of a teammate with a food allergy. Most parents don’t mind accommodating it, but it helps ease tensions when the homework gets done for them. So all is well, right?

Well for the most part. But the quote above brought to mind some other instances where parents of allergic kids wanted us to do some pretty drastic things, which we declined to do, so I couldn’t help but feel irked when I read the comment about ‘living a few hours without peanut butter’. It’s just not realistic to make sure nobody out there might ever have an allergic reaction.

First, I had a parent alert me that there were peanut shells on the ground on one of our fields. Apparently a spectator had been eating peanuts and dropped some shells on the ground. She felt we needed to email all our parents asking them not to bring peanuts to the soccer games because kids with peanut allergies might stumble across and pickup the shells. Now I’m not negating the risk here – I know some kids are that allergic to peanuts. But is that realistic or even called for (vs the parents having to keep a close eye on their child – something as a parent of four I know can be next to impossible some times) and if we do it for that, do we need to email warnings about candy wrappers, etc. Sure, we remind parents to pickup trash and not litter – but telling parents not to BRING peanuts?

The second instance was a parent alerting me to the fact that most of the products in our concession stand contained some form of peanuts and that we should sell only peanut-free products. Otherwise the risk was too great that kids would buy the products and share them with their allergic friends. Again, I asked if it was right to limit what hundreds of our league participants could purchase because of the remote risk an unsupervised child might eat a peanut based product? It’s absolutely a risk, but again, where do you draw the line? We do sell peanut free candy (Starburst, Skittles, etc.), but we also sell Trial Mix and all sorts of candy that contain some amount of peanuts.

My point in all this is more of a curiosity in terms of what other leagues do out there when it comes to food allergies, if anything. The extent of our league’s involvement is asking parents to list allergies on their child’s registration form (which in turn alerts the coach and manager) and us giving the manager some brief pointers on how to deal with it. But common sense, for the most part, prevails.

Does your league take it farther?

If you do happen to find yourself coaching or managing a team with a player who is allergic to peanuts, there are many helpful sites that list ‘safe’ snacks, though you should always check with the affected parent before sending a list out to your other parents. I’m sure there are other sites for allergies beyond peanuts.

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  1. I don’t think the author glossed over anything. As a society we make accommodations all the time to protect people with special needs. We install handicapped ramps and make special parking spaces available.

    Restaurants and airlines bend over backward to provide vegetarian and Kosher meals to protect their clients’ spiritual needs.

    Ethically, there are many reasonable things we can do to prevent people with special needs from being excluded from everyday society. Asking parents to not bring a particular snack because of an allergy is reasonable — especially if the allergen is as deadly as peanuts. Banning peanut products from the concession stand? Borderline in my opinion. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to do that, as many institutions have already done this to adjust to the new reality that increasing numbers of their clients have deadly food allergies. Allergic children can also simply avoid buying those products, too.

    On the other hand, you can’t instruct a child to always look at the grass to see if some parent hasn’t dropped a bunch of peanut shells all over the place. Asking parents not to to do that is just common decency.

    I refuse to believe that we have a culture that can adapt to all the changes that the 21st century has brought us, yet can’t manage to throw their peanut shells in the trash or try a different sandwich than a PB&J.

    Legally, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that we make reasonable accommodations. Morally, though, we have to ask ourselves what is more important. Some traditional snack product, or the life of one of our players?

  2. This is exactly the type of attitude I was referring to that irks a lot of people, myself included. First, the author DID gloss over the fact that it wasn’t just her child’s issues each parent is being asked to accomodate – it’s everyone’s. That’s why people get upset. You can’t bring peanut snacks to school because Johnny is allergic, you can’t bring non-Kosher snacks because Robin is Jewish, etc. By the time we adhere to all the restrictions to accomodate someone’s intolerance, you reach the level of it being irrational.

    Talking about ADA is absolutely misleading. ADA was enacted to ensure that disabled people had the same access that other people had. The ADA requires business and organizations make accommodations to provide additional access methods so disabled people can participate. So in addition to steps, you have a ramp. In addition to hundreds of parking spots in a parking lot, you have a few located close to an entrance.

    What some people with allergic kids want is to ban access to certain things for everybody because there is a small chance their unsupervised child will eat something they should not. That’s a HUGE difference. So it becomes a matter of what society is willing to do without.

    The peanut shell thing is a perfect example. The reasonable answer is to remind parents/spectators not to litter and maybe even include a special note about not dropping shells on the ground. But telling parents not to bring peanuts at all? That’s extreme – you’re trying to prevent bad behavior by denying something to EVERYone. Yet the person who dropped the peanut shells is still likely to litter and drop something else dangerous to someone, like a top to an aluminum can, which can seriously injure a sliding soccer player. But we aren’t going to ban soda – we implore people to pickup their trash.

    Parallels exist in youth soccer – the constant debate over tournaments vs festivals. People want to take away competitive events away from everybody because of the behavior of a few bad apples. Instead of addressing the problem coaches and parents, we take something away from everybody.

    Look – if I had a child that was so violently allergic to certain foods that they could die, I wouldn’t ask everyone to stop eating things they like. I’d ask that the allergy be accommodated (either ask parents to send in non peanut food, or ask that I know when snacks were coming so I could send in an alternative food) and the responsible adults be informed as to the dangers and risks. As for accidents – I’d take precautions and be prepared. I live on a straight main road and live in constant fear one of my kids might slip out and get hit by a car – but I don’t ask the county to shut down the road. I make sure my kids are supervised where possible, that they know the road is a MAJOR danger zone and have emergency contact information available in the case of an accident. This is why allergic kids carry EpiPens.

    I’m sure I’ll get all sorts of hateful comments because I have this opinion. Anytime you try and make reasonable arguments where kids are involved, people get way too emotional or extreme. My point here is we really need to remain rational in our thinking and not over-react. The parents the author is concerned about in the article are not cold hearted people – they just feel that sometimes the food allergy thing is taken way too far when more practical and realistic approaches can be used.

    You can’t remove ALL risk in the world. None of us can. So there’s a rational limit on the things we should take away from everybody because there is a remote chance someone might get hurt.

    My thoughts on this from a soccer league perspective would be that we educate our team managers and coaches on how to help accomodate an allergic player where they are most likely to encounter ‘bad foods’ (ie the after game snack). But going beyond that seems extreme. What’s the point of having a concession stand if the only thing you can sell at it is Skittles and Starburst (until you find you have a child in your league who is allergic to Red Dye #5)?

    In the end, people are allergic to all sorts of things, and by the time we ban substances that might give them a reaction, we’ll have nothing left. So in the end, we need to take pragmatic and reasonable steps to reduce the risk to everyone.

  3. I didn’t say that you should tell parents not to bring peanuts. Asking them not to litter is the sensible solution.

    I also didn’t say that you should ban peanuts from your concession stand, in fact I said that an allergic kid could just purchase different products — like the Starburst and Skittles you mentioned.

    Herein lies the actual conflict. When people attempt to meet in the middle about a particular issue and their positions are called irrational, leading to further conflict and polarization. Where can the discussion go from here?

    It is sometimes daunting when you feel like you have to jump through hoops to accommodate a small group of people with special needs. I used to feel the same way. It’s easier once you’ve met a few kids who have these needs and just want a chance to play somewhere without feeling like their lives are in danger.

    We don’t have to treat a little accommodation as some kind of slippery-slope that will lead us to banning soda and any other obliquely harmful product that exists. We do have to weigh the issues, though, just as we do other matters in society. Would creating a small inconvenience provide a benefit that outweighs that inconvenience? In some cases this is clearly yes. In cases where the benefit does not exceed the inconvenience, maybe not. Rational conversation is how we will hopefully solve these things.

    The fact is, a growing number of children are becoming allergic to certain foods. The most dangerous, by far, is peanuts. Every exposure a child has to an allergen makes subsequent reactions deadlier. This problem is getting worse, not better. We need to find sensible solutions rather than vilify people like this author who are dealing with it every day.

  4. First – I have met kids who have serious food allergies. And I certainly didn’t vilify this author. I simply noted her fear of the reaction of other parents brought to mind some more extreme examples that I had encountered which I shared to start a discussion. I also made it very clear that there should be a ‘middle ground’ that makes the risk manageable. Thus my comments about asking parents not to litter as a whole (vs banning peanuts) and providing peanut/dairy free snacks that kids COULD buy and the assistance for coaches and managers so they could easily accommodate an allergic player. Again it comes down to the ‘expansion’ accommodations similar to how the ADA works, vs the restrictive accommodations.

    As to your statement about the peanut products – you actually did talk about banning them, followed up by the note they could just buy alternate products:

    Banning peanut products from the concession stand? Borderline in my opinion. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to do that, as many institutions have already done this to adjust to the new reality that increasing numbers of their clients have deadly food allergies. Allergic children can also simply avoid buying those products, too.

    And if you did ban products containing peanuts or dairy (two of the most common) – you’d eliminate about 75% of the products for sale.

    The point is, this IS a discussion. And a healthy one. But all too often people are made to feel guilty (What about the children!?!?!) because they push back a little against what they view as extreme measures. I’m certainly not saying “It’s your problem to deal with, we should do nothing!” Far from it, as I suggested a number of things that did aim to be ‘in the middle’, but I also think requests to outright restrict things on a macro scale (ie beyond a team snack) go a bit far.

  5. Soccerdad~I am SO with you on this. We haven’t, as a team, had to deal with this, but our younger son had an extremely allergic child in his preschool class. The mom provided a list of ‘safe’ foods at the beginning of the year, because we were all required to contribute snacks. The problem with it was that a lot of parents felt that if it was their child’s ‘snack day’, they should be allowed to pick the snack that THEY want to bring, and not one of the few safe food snacks on the list. The kids got very tired of graham crackers every time, and eventually when the kids started packing lunches instead of bringing snacks, they considered banning peanut and dairy products altogether, but parents protested so they ended up having a peanut/dairy free TABLE where the kid sat with the teacher and ate, and any kid who didn’t have peanut/dairy products could sit there too. I think that by the end of the year, the kids ended up resenting this kid because they couldn’t bring what they wanted, even on their birthdays, because A was allergic to it. I know I, as a parent, felt that it was unfair that one kid’s rights were more important than everyone else’s, and found myself thinking, “Yeah, but what about MY kid’s birthday treats, doesn’t he have a right to pick his own treats?” I just got tired of it. The same thing can be said about school districts’ limiting Christmas celebrations, Halloween parties, etc. We all need to learn to just accept each others’ differences and move on, live your life without imposing it on others, and stop making it everyone else’s problem when your child has a different dietary need or spiritual belief. Teach your child to make safe choices for HIM, and yes, do ask that parents use common sense and not litter, because that’s just polite. I think it’s important to be considerate, but for EVERYONE, including the allergic kids’ parents…bring your own snack if need be, instruct your kid not to buy things from the snack bar, don’t touch peanut shells on the ground, etc., but don’t deprive others of something to accomodate your child’s allergy.

  6. I understand the desire of any parent to want their child to ‘fit in’ I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a child to be so allergic that they had their own table, their own special foods, etc. Childhood is hard enough as it is. The key to all this is striking the right balance and also that parents of allergic children understand that kids are kids. You’re right that they WILL resent a kid who is keeping them from having birthday treats or bringing snacks they enjoy. That’s why the comment in the article of “as if it weren’t possible for a child to live for a few hours without peanut butter. If an orange Crayola would kill a child, there would be no question about teaching kids how to mix yellow and red instead, but heaven forbid you ask a kid to wait for a peanut butter snack so someone in his class won’t die.” bugged me so. It’s clearly NOT that simple. No matter what you tell your kids when they ask why they have to take graham crackers to school every day, they’re going to figure out why and I can assure you they won’t be pragmatic about it. The parents want to be able to do something special for their children (sending cupcakes on a birthday, candy bags for Halloween) and get upset when they’re told they can’t.

    Yet it’s not the allergic kids fault they’re at risk of a reaction that could kill them and you certainly can’t trust a preschooler to make the ‘safe’ decision about snacks and the teachers don’t want to be the food police for fear of being sued if a kid gets ahold of something in a split second.

    There’s no easy answer to this and unfortunately all too often the schools and organizations just throw up their hands in frustration and ban everything. The parents of allergic kids feel other parents are being insensitive to their child’s condition and could care less if the kid’s life is in danger while the rest of the parents understand it often goes much farther than just a simple snack list and that there should be some type of compromise possible without banning everything their kids enjoy eating. The problem is they rarely meet in the middle because it involves children and thus emotions run high.

  7. Exactly, and I think the problem lies not with the kids, as usual, but with the parents. T has friends (he’s 11) who are allergic to things, know they are, and refuse them if they are over here…going so far as to read labels. Obviously a preschooler can’t do that, so their parents have to do it for them. I guess their only other option (which isn’t always the best one) is to homeschool, or just be there to supervise, or provide their own snacks. Tough call, no matter what. Today at the store, I saw a lady with a service dog, and got to thinking, if a parent complained about the service dog being allowed into the store because her kid had allergies, would it be discriminating more against the kid with the allergies to allow the dog into the store, or against the blind person for not being able to BRING their dog into the store…interesting if you think about it!

  8. As someone who’s been peanut allergic all her life (and am now in my 5th decade), I can say it’s a pain (“Just try a little taste” or “Girl scouts try everything!” but given the consequences I had no trouble (and still don’t) ignoring foolish advice was really not an issue.

    I still wonder WHY we need snacks at all after soccer? My son is overweight and does not need 300 or more calories of snack after soccer 2 or 3 times a week. We ended up dropping soccer league and playing ourselves because of that. He was GAINING weight…

    Juice is NOT a healthy choice….nor are chips or warm pretzels…

  9. Wow – does your team do snacks after practice? That seems a bit much. Our teams tend to do them after matches, usually at the younger age levels – ie once a week during the regular season. Older teams often just do drinks. It’s a nice treat/reward for working hard. Most of the snacks I’ve seen distributed after matches tend to be relatively healthy – ie not candy. At worst you see chips, but usually goldfish, maybe bite size oreos, and usually under 200 calories per bag – not a substantial part of a child’s daily intake. I think coaches should set expectations for ‘good’ snacks. But anything beyond a once a week treat after matches seems a bit much and if they were so prevalent that they contribute to weight gain something is very wrong.

  10. “that it was unfair that one kid’s rights were more important than everyone else’s”

    You know what? It’s one kid’s LIFE. My son is dealthy allergic to dairy, so yeah sorry. I am AMAZED at people’s lack of compassion and understanding about allergies. It truly makes me sick. May you never have to go thru life knowing that the person sitting next you, drinking a glass of milk, if they spill it and it gets on your hand, you will STOP BREATHING. Now, try that when you’re only four years old!

  11. My son is 5 and will be attending K and we are working on getting school accommodations for his multiple life threatening food allergies. I found this site in doing research and after reading felt I really needed to comment.

    I first want to say that if people are to comment on what should and shouldn’t be done in regards to food allergies they should first get their facts straight. They should visit various websites and read up on what food allergies are and are not and what the risks truly are. After all, how can you make an educated comment without all the facts? Some of these posts have some serious misinformation and this is what “irks” us FA parents. And quite frankly, it’s what makes us go overboard to ensure our child’s safety and protection…b/c of others ignorance.

    Life threatening is just that-“life threatening”. Every child is different but some children can surely have an anaphylactic reaction from ingestion, touch, or inhalation from even a trace amount of an allergen. (Think peanut residue you can’t see, or in the instance of peanut shells-stepping on them releases the peanut protein that you can inahale.)

    Anaphylaxis basically means that your throat swells to the point of closing and that you can not breathe. If you don’t believe that this happens or really want to see this, google it and you’ll be able to see some utube anaphylactic reactions. Life threatening food allergies are NOT just runny nose and watery eyes.

    The medicine of choice is the epi pen, but must be administered as soon as possible and sometimes doesn’t even work. The epi-pen is “not” some miracle cure. The child will still need to go to the ER for careful watch and medical attention. The epi-pen hurts and can have it’s own horrible side effects.

    Yes, food allergies are on the rise and guess what-doctor’s don’t know why. So while we may not have known kids with FA growing up(or they had it and didn’t know it), it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist now. And it doesn’t mean it’s not a serious medical issue. That’s the beauty of medical evolution. We are discovering new things all the time. The same argument can be used for autism, which is also on the rise.

    Of course there will be FA parents that go overboard. Just as there are non FA people who go overboard in opposing any sort of accommodations for people other than themselves. Of course we need to find a compromise and meet in the middle. However, life threatening food allergies ARE a disability under civil rights law section 504 and ADA. Just because it is a “hidden” disability does not mean it does not exist. And people with disabilities have legal rights and are entitled to accommodations that fit their individual needs. (Parents of FA kids-know your rights. Read up on section 504 and ADA. The school won’t tell you this.)

    This might mean that a classroom has to be nut free. Or that celebrations in schools are food free. Or that only safe foods for “all” are allowed. I don’t find that it’s the children who have an issue with this, it’s the adults. When children are taught compassion, they are compassionate. When parents complain about a FA child so will the children. And quite frankly, medical conditions in schools are supposed to be confidential to avoid this type of resentment and behavior.

    Equal access-a child does not have equal access to learning if he is in fear of his life, if he has an anaphylactic reaction because there is nut residue in the classroom. Yes, a ramp is built in addition to stairs. But we are talking about “life threatening” which may mean that peanuts need to stay OUT OF the classroom to ensure that the FA child receives a free and appropriate education in public schools. Does the entire school have to be nut free? In my opinion, no,(depending on the food allergy and severity) but only if the school is taking the proper precautions to ensure the safety of all its students. Which may mean stricter cleaning policies, hand washing policies, etc. But classrooms, where children are there to learn and are immersed in their environment should indeed be allergen free if necessary. Again, each allergy being different but there are children allergic by contact and inhalation, not just ingestion.

    In fact the law governs all public places. So it is well within a FA persons rights to request an allergen free section of a movie theater or baseball stadium and it’s been done. We do have wheel chair sections don’t we?

    As others have commented, we make accommodations in life all the time. If there was a child with cancer in your child’s class that needed food accommodations would you think differently?

    In regards to soccer or other leagues, children are to have equal access. Equal does not mean separate. That’s why we also have discrimination laws. We should try to INCLUDE FA kids not just because it’s the law, but because it’s the right thing to do.

    As far as the argument about kids being left with nothing to eat when we accommodate all kids with all ranges of needs…take a moment to think about what you are saying. Not all situations are equal and not all accommodations would be equal. But if it involves a life, it should be given priority. Also, peanuts are the number one allergen and have the highest rates of severe reaction. So another allergy might not need the accommodations that a peanut allergy needs. It all depends on the child.

    While you may not remember FA kids growing up, I don’t remember the amount of junk food in schools growing up. There shouldn’t be this type of food in schools, after soccer practice, etc. period. Studies show our kids are fat. They don’t “need” these foods or snacks and will certainly live without them. A FA child could DIE because of them. Let’s teach our children to celebrate without the use of food. Let’s teach our children compassion for others rather than “but I really want a cupcake.” And why should everyone’s kids be subjected to the fact that YOU or your child wants to have a cupcake? Have a cupcake at home. School is for learning.

    Lastly would you really want your child to have to see an anaphylactic reaction firsthand because he or she just had to bring cupcakes into school? Would you want your child to know that he or she or you caused that child’s reaction or even death?

    Bottom line: educate yourself before you spread misinformation, step back and treat others how you would want to be treated or better yet how you would want your kids to be treated, and really think about what it is you are angry about. Is a little inconvenience in your life really worth more than the life of a child? Because this is what it really all comes down to. People just don’t want to be inconvenienced.