The Cookie Threat: Allergy Awareness in Kid’s Ministry

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Whenever I think back to my time in nursery or children’s church, I can’t remember much about the Sunday school teachers or the flannel graph lessons. Call me a heathen, but I remember snack time. Animal crackers or those generic-brand Oreos? I could take them or leave them. What I wanted were the ring butter cookies—they were snacks and accessories. And a couple times a month, every kid got a few of these golden goodies to eat (or wear), no questions asked.

With a sister who suffers from Celiac disease, I wonder what would happen if these gluten-filled treats got into the wrong little hands. Such food intolerances are a serious issue, but allergies could lead to significant medical problems or even death.

Allergy awareness has come a long way since I was a toddler, but many churches are still struggling to properly care for children with special dietary and health requirements.

The Facts

According to a 2009-2010 study, about 8% of children have a food allergy, and 38.7% of them have a history of severe allergic reactions. Those numbers seem to grow every year—approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011.

90% of all food allergies are attributed to eight foods: milk, soy, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish. Makes you rethink the choice of cheese crackers and chocolate chip cookies as the snack choice, doesn’t it?

Many children also suffer from allergies to non-food items like latex, medication, and creams you may be using in the nursery.

Even beyond allergies, specific medical needs can leave kid’s ministry a hotbed for potential danger.

The Concerns

The greatest concern, of course, is child safety. No ministry wants to see a child rushed to the emergency room because of an unknown health condition or an allergen-packed snack.

But beyond the immediate safety of children is the concern of their parents. They should be able to trust your staff and volunteers enough to feel comfortable leaving their vulnerable kids in their hands. You want them to be able to leave any concerns at the door so they can focus on worship, fellowship, and their own spiritual development. Especially when dealing with visiting families, you should show credibility in these areas so they keep coming back.

The liability of the church and its volunteers is also at stake when dealing with allergies and medical conditions. Should a child have a serious reaction, the church could face legal consequences—beyond the tragedy that a little one was harmed. A lack of awareness and one incident could be devastating to a ministry.

The Solutions

Although there are several things that could go wrong, churches can prepare and equip their people to deal with children’s medical issues.

Utilizing a check-in system that prints labels for children that can include allergies, medical needs, and any special instructions is one of the best ways to prevent any health scares. Parents won’t have to worry about personally telling every nursery worker about Billy’s soy allergy, and the critical information will follow him wherever he crawls. Ministry staff won’t need to keep a mental list of which kid has which allergy—they can simply check each label before handing off a treat.

Churches should also provide volunteers and staff with the proper training to understand allergies, intolerances, and other health concerns. Awareness is key. The problem is much more serious and sensitive than most people understand—just a trace of eggs or contact with peanuts could be enough to trigger a reaction. Make sure workers always double-check the labels for hidden ingredients—different brands of the same item can contain very different ingredients. Allergens find a way to sneak into most foods where you’d never expect to find them. Proper protocol may require more than one kind of snack available, and some churches are eliminating them altogether. Always require anyone who will be in contact with children to wash their hands, as cross-contamination can also lead to problems.

Being proactive is most important, but accidents happen. So learn to be reactive as well. Along with prevention training, ensure at least one volunteer or staff member in attendance knows how to administer epinephrine and CPR, and always keep first-aid supplies nearby. Develop an emergency response plan, and contact parents or guardians immediately after an incident occurs—never try to hide and solve the problem without involving them.

Get started with a church check-in system today and take advantage of some other great resources:

Allergies in the Classroom

Why Your Church Needs a Plan for Allergic Reactions

Food Allergy Basics