The Food Connection : Environmental Health In Schools

It was Games Day at the elementary school and the children and teachers were preparing for a day of fun. Each classroom was to host a different game, and classes would circulate throughout the school taking turns at each event. There were prizes of stickers and candy treats. In Mrs. Simmin’s room the game was to try to be first to eat a bowl of blue gelatin dessert – hands behind backs! At noon – a special event for a city school where all children normally go home for lunch – a meal would be served in a flurry of organized chaos. What fun! Hotdogs in buns with ketchup, relish, and mustard, cheese puffs and juice treat drink followed up by an ice cream cup for dessert. A day of fun for all!

Let’s take a closer look: Peter and Eric have known food and chemical sensitivities. Peter’s worst reactions are to milk and sugar, and a chance eating of even the small amounts of milk
products found in the hot dogs or buns could cause him days of asthma and illness. Eric is reactive to many additives, and is anaphylactic to combined MSG and BHT. As arranged, their
teachers informed the parents of the menu so that safe substitutes could be provided from home. The boy’s parents were grateful once again that the teachers were so careful to help protect them.

Other children were not so lucky. Jason and Luke became loud and aggressive after the candy relay and spent the next hour sitting out. All the children know they are “bad” boys anyway. Several children had stomach pains and others needed their asthma puffers before the day was out. It was all thought to be a result of the overexcitement from the day.

The janitor found three children outside vomiting after the gelatin game, but the principal said they were probably gulping it too fast. Also after the gelatin game, Deena’s lips swelled up, and she was not in school the next day. She was in the hospital, having come very close to having a tracheotomy in the night from swelling of the face and throat. Her mother said she had once swelled up after eating a well-known brand of blue-coated candy, but her doctor had told her at the time that it was “nothing to worry about”.

After school some teachers joked that they were glad it was Friday because otherwise it might be just like the three days following Easter and Halloween. No one learns a thing – they are either acting up or almost asleep, and just getting through those days is every teacher’s goal.

Peter’s and Eric’s mothers had given up trying to encourage healthier eating practices for all at school events. It had taken some effort, but at least most parents and staff understood and were willing to help with their boys’ special needs. Still, it was hard to witness events such as the one just described and know that most did not see what was right before their eyes – that children
“are what they eat”. Children’s detox systems tend to be less efficient than adult’s. If we feed them processed and synthetic foods containing chemical ingredients, additives, and residues,
these foreign substances must either be removed by their less efficient body processes or these materials join the building blocks of their bodies. These mothers know that such materials can be very harmful to peoples health. Also that many children have hidden sensitivities to additives, sugar, and synthetic food products, and that not just the junk food can produce adverse effects – if a child has developed a sensitivity, even “good” foods like milk, corn and wheat can affect health, behaviour, and the ability to learn.

Like the blue dye example above, some reactions to foods or additives can even be fatal. Shellfish allergies are well known, but on the rise is an awareness of serious peanut allergies. The Globe and Mail recently reported that the most common fatal reaction to food allergy is to peanuts. It was stated that in some cases only a tiny amount can cause a serious reaction. A study in The British Medical Journal concluded that infants can be sensitized to peanuts in utero, from infant milk products that contain peanut oil or protein, and from breast milk of peanut-eating mothers. They suggested pregnant and breast-feeding women avoid peanut products.

Another study from Newport’s St. Mary’s Hospital found that children born to families with a history of allergies were much more prone to peanut allergies, and that in their study of 1,200 children, the peanut sensitized children always had some other allergy, eczema, or asthma. Many of these conclusions are similar to those found by environmental researchers for other foods.

While school boards are unlikely to make broad policies banning certain foods throughout their school systems, individual schools will usually agree to make changes to protect a student from harm. Once the seriousness of the risk is known, those housing a child with a dangerous peanut allergy, for example, are usually willing to ban peanut containing products. Unfortunately it has taken obvious serious harm or actual loss of life to shock people into taking the need seriously. Even then it takes a vigilance on the part of everyone in the school to protect the threatened child from harm. Imagine the task. A new student moves in and someone forgets to teach them of the ban. Or someone forgets to read the fine print on an ingredients list. The results can be tragic, especially if the allergy is so severe that even smelling the food in question produces serious physiological reactions.

Equally tragic, although less dramatic, is the harm caused to children whose diet reactions are less clear cut. For example, a child who becomes unfocussed and aggressive after eating wheat hardly stands a chance of having his sensitivity discovered. In our society where wheat products are included in everything from bread to prepackaged pudding to processed meats, he could have a constant, daily exposure accompanied by the constant daily symptoms. His disruptive behaviour in class could hamper the learning process for his entire class. Because most doctors are not fully aware yet of the food connection, children like this are frequently labelled as having Attention Deficit Disorder or Hyperactivitity and may wind up on a medication such as Ritalin (a class 2 Narcotic).

Although any food is capable of causing reactions in those sensitive to it, the most commonly problematic foods are Sugar, milk, additives/dyes/colouring, corn, wheat, eggs, cocoa, citrus, and soy. (Crook, Rapp, Egger, and others).

As for water, additives such as chlorine and fluoride, and contaminants such as algae, bacteria, lead, copper, chemicals such as pesticides, plastics and other pollutants can also cause significant harm. Consider that our bodies are made up of about 70% water. Given that children spend about half of their waking hours in school, and that children’s bodies are in the process of growing through the use of “building materials” they ingest, it seems sensible to conclude that clean water and healthy food for schools should be a priority.

Lets also examine the messages that food events like the one described give to our children: Teaching by example is known to be more effective than words alone. They are taught about good nutrition in Health class, yet in the canteen, the cafeteria, and at special events we often send Negative Food Messages such as, “This is the desirable food”, or “Processed food is fine”, or “Peas and potatoes can’t be enjoyed like this can”. What are we really teaching about nutrition? If children have a choice, many will reach for the pop and hotdogs. If we make them available in schools we are sending the message that this is good and acceptable food. It seems to me the pop machines, the chocolate bars, and foods high in fats and low in nutrients don’t really have a place in schools. There are schools leading the way for us with well thought out regular and special events menus. (see Dr. Rapp’s new book, listed below.)

Back to our Games Day event: After the blue dye episode, Deena’s mother contacted Peter and Eric’s parents, and they formed a parent group to study the diet/ health/behaviour connection and to promote changes in their school for the benefit of all.

The choices were to either assertively campaign for changes, or to try the softer sell. The slow route was chosen because people’s diets are a very personal issue. Many people pride themselves in being knowledgeable about healthy eating – They avoid fat, salt, and other unhealthy foods, believe milk is “nature’s perfect food”, and accept the national Food Guide as the solution for all. Besides, no one likes to be told by their peers that they’ve got it all wrong.

The group asked for 15 minutes at a PTA meeting to briefly introduce their concerns and describe what they were learning. They purchased five copies of the new booklet called Dr. Crook Discusses HYPERACTIVITY and the Attention Deficit Disorder (1995). They took them to the meeting and launched their circulation among teachers and the PTA. The school librarian agreed to handle circulation and included these and other related books on the library’s Parent Shelf. This booklet provides a condensed version of the overall topic of behaviour and diet and is a quick and relatively painless way of introducing this information to school officials. At the meeting they invited interested parents to remain afterward and view one of Dr. Doris Rapp’s videos (see resource list below).

From another school they had learned that forcing the entire PTA to watch the movie may have been a mistake. In that school, this event seemed to instantly transform a “Sleeper” topic into a hot one. A panel debate was set up with all sides in the debate participating – a good idea on the surface, but it seemed to heighten the risk of failure – instead of gradually providing information over time and easing resistance to changes, the topic became inflamed. Success rested on the performance of one or two speakers, and in a way it became a competitive issue, where opponents would meet and decide the fate of the children in one single event. The issue divided the school instead of bringing people together for a common goal, and made any further discussions on nutrition difficult.

These parents didn’t want to make the same mistake. Fortunately, those who remained to view the tape were very interested by it and some asked to join their group. More people discovered their children’s food connection, and the PTA asked for more contributions from “the Food Committee”. This eventually lead to changes in the snack foods made available in the school canteen, and to more acceptable prizes and treats on special occasions. Children were taking home new ideas! More children were feeling better, and learning without difficulty!

There were improvements in many families’ meals. The media took interest in spreading the news; higher quality and organically produced foods became available as a response to demand; there was earlier identification of children with food intolerance, and education of families about how to help them. Medical schools took up the banner, and doctors received intensive training in nutritional healing. Health Canada, on instruction from the Prime Minister, embarked on a National Nutrition Education Program. (They found the money through a unanimous vote by both houses of Parliament to cut all MP’s and Senator’s salaries, expense accounts and pensions.) Canada lead the way in the United Nations to declare that year The International Year of Child Nutrition, and……I’m getting carried away. Alright, I admit it. What began as a factual account of a school event, has been transformed into an out and out fantasy. Forgive me.

What actually happened? At least three parents had chance discussions where they learned of other children’s experiences that day. Deena (not her real name) was prescribed an epi-pen, and her mother sought out the advice of a nutritional counselor. However, the counselor’s advice included changing the way she fed her children, so the epi-pen seemed to be the easier solution – and one her doctor could support. That was the end of it.

But there really is reason for hope. Some schools have made real progress, although every new change that strengthens and improves our children’s world seems to take effort, and lots of it. Accepting the challenge of the diet/health/behaviour connection for our own children is the first step. Then, by providing similar information through the schools and society in general we can (1) reduce the incidence of our own children’s education being interrupted by daily “sufferings” of food reactive classmates, and (2) help many of those school children be released from a food related spiral of unnecessary ill health and failure.

Some books and resources are:

  • Additive Alert! The Pollution Probe Foundation, 1994, ISBN 0-7710-7139-6
  • Brain Allergies: The Psychonutrient Connection, Philpott and Kalita, 1980, ISBN 0-87983-426-9
  • Dr. Crook Discusses HYPERACTIVITY and the Attention Deficit Disorder (1995). ISBN 0-933478-19-4
  • Diet for a Poisoned Planet, David Steinman, 1990, ISBN 0-517-57512-4
  • Free to Fly, a journey toward wellness, Rajhathy, ISBN 1-895814-04-9
  • Freedom From Allergy Cookbook, Greenberg and Nori, 1990, ISBN 0-88925-905-4
  • The Healthy School Handbook, Miller, Ed., Chapter 19, ISBN 0-8106-1863-X
  • The Impossible Child, Rapp, 1989, ISBN 0-9616318-1-3
  • Is This Your Child? Rapp, 1991, ISBN 0-688-08623-3
  • Is This Your Child’s World? Rapp, 1996, ISBN 0-553-10513-2
  • Solving the Puzzle of Your Hard to Raise Child. Crook and Stevens, ISBN 0-394-56054-X
  • The Impossible Child Videos (1) How To Recognize Children Who Have Unsuspected Allergies.
    (2) How to Detect the Cause of allergies and Environmental Illness, and (3) A Hyperactive Child,
    One With Tourette’s Syndrome, and a Retarded Child. Rapp.
  • Why an Environmentally Clean Classroom? video, Rapp, 1995.

K. Robinson
Healthy Schools Editor
the AEHA National Update, 1997