ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – The institution that’s likely been impacted the most by the dramatic rise in food allergies is the education system.
From daycares to colleges, schools have to adapt to parents’ demands and federal regulations. With statistics showing there could be one or two kids in every classroom who deals with a food allergy, their safety is becoming an issue every parent has to deal with.
Joy Krieger, Executive Director of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America – St. Louis Chapter, says “Asthma has always been the No. 1 issue that faces a school nurse, and we learned this past year that food allergies has taken that role.”
Twenty percent of children who have food allergies have had a reaction at school. Some of the most severe reactions involve kids who have never even been diagnosed.
Districts responded with food bans, which in turn prompts backlash from students and parents.
“We read articles all the time about certain schools that say, just take your child out of the school and go somewhere else,” Krieger says.
The Center for Disease Control has issued lengthy recommendations for controlling food allergens at schools in the U.S. Those do suggest creating food-free zones in classrooms, libraries and other common areas.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist Sherry Coleman Collins says, “Those guidelines specifically talk about the limitations of bans, and actually recommend against them because they create a false sense of security for students and for the adults who are charged with student care.”
Collins works for the National Peanut Board. She says those who suffer from food or peanut allergies are a tiny percent of the total population, and schools should be able to serve peanut butter as long as they take the right steps to prevent cross-contact.
“If the point is to try to protect food allergic children and prevent anaphylaxis you’d have to ban every potential allergen that could cause anaphylaxis, and that doesn’t make sense,” she says.
Supporters of peanut and other food bans in schools say the focus is legitimate, that one child’s life is more important than an inconvenience.
There’s also great concern about the mental well-being of children with food allergies who deal with isolation, exclusion, anxiety and worse.
Food allergies can be considered a disability under federal law, requiring special accommodations. For many of those reasons, school districts have decided the best policy for all of their students is better safe than sorry.
Katie Koester, Director of School Food and Nutrition Services at the Mehlville School District, says the district is not completely peanut-free, but ensures the cafeteria is safe.
“None of our products in our cafeteria contain peanuts, tree nuts or even have the statement made in a factory where peanuts or tree nuts are produced,” she says.
While Mehlville School District allows children to bring their own lunches from home, they did ban baked goods that are normally shared among classmates, such as birthday treats. Koester says food is still allowed for classroom celebrations, it’s just controlled.
“We did ruffle some feathers in regards to the birthday treats … We have a birthday treat order guide that contains about four or five food items that families must utilize. It all came about due to food allergies.”
The Clayton School District also has a series of bans to protect students with food allergies.
Glenridge Principal Beth Scott says students from kindergarten through second grade are not allowed to bring in lunch boxes. There are no food-related parties and no treats for birthdays; kids get other rewards on their special day. And students aren’t allowed to have peanuts or peanut butter.
“And every year you may get one incoming parent of a new kindergarten child saying, ‘That’s all my child will eat is peanut butter, what do you mean by this?’ And we break the news to them gently and say, ‘So now you have the summer to practice eating something different,'” Scott says.
Scott says she tries to make all parents see that they are partners “because they would hate it if it was their child with the allergy that could be life-threatening and others around them weren’t in compliance.”
People with food allergies have to eat. Scott compares it to playing Russian Roulette.
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