Lurking in the lunchroom: students cope with food allergies at SPA

Lurking in the lunchroom: students cope with food allergies at SPA

Food allergies are ubiquitous and don’t discriminate. People of all ages, genders, and races can experience allergy symptoms ranging from mild stomach aches and faint rashes to severe, life-threatening throat constrictions and anaphylactic shock.

Dr. Kari Nadeau, who directs the Stanford Alliance for Food Allergy Research at Stanford University School of Medicine in an Apr. 2013 NPR segment “The Doctor Trying to Solve the Mystery of Food Allergies” states, “nearly 15 million Americans have a food allergy, ranging from moderate to severe. One of every 13 children has one.”

Junior Lauren Woessner discovered early in life that she is allergic to peanuts.“I don’t remember this but my mom would always tell me that she made peanut butter and jelly in a tortilla and I didn’t eat it. Wherever it touched me, my skin would turn red,” she said.

St. Paul Academy and Summit School has a number of students with food allergies, some of which were discovered when they were teens.“I figured it out freshman year in yearbook,” junior Karsten Runquist said. “I was starving and the teacher was passing out granola bars and I just went for it. After about five minutes my throat swelled up… I had my mom bring me to the ER.” Runquist has a severe allergy to tree nuts.

In line with national standards for allergen safety, the Upper School has recently gone nut-safe. Upper School Principal Chris Hughes states that the decision to convert SPA’s campus nut-free isn’t unusual: “The Lower School has been nut-safe for a while now,” he said.

Allergic reactions to food, like nuts, are triggered when the body’s overly sensitive immune system misinterprets it as a threat. Instead of recognizing the food as innocuous, the body perceives it as a foreign intruder and releases defense mechanisms which may lead to severe and life-threatening reactions.

This is something freshman Noah Solomon experienced four years ago when he got his allergies tested. “They had a tray of all the allergens…but they didn’t feed it [food he is allergic to] to me,” Solomon said.

The doctor dipped a toothpick in the allergen and scratched Solomon’s back. Then, an allergist checked the skin for signs of major allergic reactions.

“With eggs my face puffs up and my breathing becomes a little weaker, but it’s nothing like nuts,” Solomon said, mentioning that his reaction to nuts is the worst out of his three main allergies: fish, eggs and nuts. “[My nut reactions are] the same as everybody else: Anaphylaxis. If I were to eat peanuts, it would be really bad; [my throat] would close even more,” he said.

The Mayo Clinic Staff wrote in a January 2013 online article titled “Anaphylaxis Definition,” that “the flood of chemicals released by your immune system during anaphylaxis can cause you to go into shock; your blood pressure drops suddenly and your airways narrow, blocking normal breathing.” This can be fatal and requires a trip to the Emergency Room.

“My throat starts feeling really tight and swallowing just gets harder and harder, pretty scary stuff,” Runquist said.

Allergies to the same foods can cause different reactions depending on the individual.

Sophomore Mary Grant’s family members’ allergic reactions differ widely: “My sister eats dairy and her stomach hurts, but when my mom eats dairy her ears drip [from excess moisture],” she said.

Not only do many students have allergies, but their family members deal with them as well. Grant’s mother is allergic to wheat, dairy and many other foods.“I mean, I see that when my mom eats wheat she’s sick for at least a week. It’s a big deal,” she said. In eighth grade, Grant even wrote an essay to read before her class about her family’s allergies.

Many students at SPA have food allergies, the most common of which are nuts and shellfish. Some students just have to be cautious and keep an eye out for spoons labeled for allergens at lunch, while others carry an EpiPen with them.

“Nowadays I carry an EpiPen with me pretty much wherever I go and I just stay away from anything that might have nuts unless the person that made the food tells me it wasn’t made with nuts,” Runquist said. “I’m just more cautious as a person when it comes to eating now.”

Either way, mild food allergies can be difficult to live with. These people must be extra careful when picking what to eat. Having labeled utensils along with the nut-policy are meant to help take away some of the worry.It is important for fellow classmates to be aware and considerate of the members of the SPA community with severe allergies that impact them on a daily basis.

This article was originally published in the September 2014 Print issue of The Rubicon.  The story can be seen in its original form by clicking on the “In Print” tab or at