For parents of children with food allergies, school lunchtime can be terrifying.
"If a parent brings in a snack, Ryan can't have it," said Colene Birchfield, whose son, Ryan, has suffered from allergies to milk, eggs and peanuts. "He has to sort of be alienated from the rest of the class, which is sort of difficult."
Teresa Walters also knows just how devastating children's food allergies can be. She lost her son Nathan seven years ago when he died from a severe allergic reaction to a peanut butter cookie at age 9.
On a field trip with his class, Nathan was supposed to have received a special lunch for his allergies, but was mistakenly given a bagged lunch that included a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, trail mix with peanuts and a peanut butter cookie. Although Nathan spoke up and did not eat most of the food, he did eat the cookie, thinking it was a sugar cookie without peanuts. He died several hours later on the way home.
"My understanding is that Nathan might have survived if he had been given his Epipen [a medicine that treats severe allergic reactions], especially considering how close emergency medical care was," Walters said in a statement today to a congressional panel. "I know he would have survived if his health care plan had been followed; if his school had received additional training on the severity and risks of food allergies."
Birchfield and Walters were among several who testified today before a Senate panel about the challenges that face children with food allergies.
It's an issue that hits close to home for Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel's subcommittee on children and families. Dodd's daughter is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shell fish, sesame and tropical fruits.
"It's been a real challenge," said Dodd's wife Jackie Clegg Dodd. "And, in fact, we've had teachers at a public school tell us, 'You know, we don't really think we can keep your daughter safe here. We don't have a full-time nurse. We don't have the guidelines in place.'"
A bill sponsored by Dodd would provide schools with consistent guidelines for managing food allergies, and would give grants to schools that decide to implement them.
"The greatest danger young children face is in the school environment," Dodd said. "We could actually come up with a cure for this thing. We could deal with this problem in an effective way. Children shouldn't have to go through this. Parents shouldn't have to go through this."
According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 6 to 8 percent of children 4 years old and younger suffer from food allergies. Food allergies are also the most frequent cause of emergency room visits for anaphylaxis.
Milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy top the list of foods kids are allergic to. Peanut allergies, especially, have been on the rise.
"When we looked in 1997, there were one in 250 young children with a peanut allergy," said Dr. Scott Sicherer, associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "We repeated that study just five years later and the number had risen to one in 125. A doubling -- which is quite shocking, actually."