The Fragile Generation

The increase in life-threatening food allergies among children has changed the public school experience.

New Jersey Monthly September 2016

“Is it clean?” Matt asks his teacher.

It’s a question he raises every day about almost everything in his classroom, from doorknobs to desk chairs. He also asks, “Are you sure I can eat that?” and “Can we call my Mom and check?”

Matt (not his real name) starts fourth grade at Brooklake Elementary School in Florham Park this month. His first trip to the hospital came after eating yogurt at 10 months old. Now 10, he is deathly allergic to milk, eggs, soy, tree nuts and legumes, including peanuts. It’s a large swath of the Big Eight—the eight categories of the most common food allergens. These also include fish, shellfish and wheat. Seed allergies are less common, and though Matt outgrew his allergy to sesame, mustard is still a hazard.

Matt’s daily life is rooted in routine. Before he eats lunch, he meticulously washes his hands. At the same time, his designated classroom aide wipes down the cafeteria table where he plans to eat his bagged lunch. The table is a safe distance from the trash cans where carefree peers toss their half-finished milk cartons and peanut butter sandwiches. Before Matt starts computer class, his aide wipes down the screen, the mouse, the keyboard and the table around his workspace. Green signs on the classroom doors declare: “This is an ‘Allergy Free’ Zone. No peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, soy, beans, mustard, peas. Your cooperation will help keep our school safe for all our children.” During snack time, Matt eats in the classroom while his classmates enjoy their allergen-rich snacks in the hallway. Matt prefers to eat alone. It’s safer.

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