08/29/10 — Schools blacklist peanut butter due to allergies

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Schools blacklist peanut butter due to allergies

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 29, 2010 1:50 AM

A lunchbox standard is getting a new look from some school officials in the Wayne County School District.

Two schools have already restricted peanut butter sandwiches in student lunches and others are considering some limitations for the iconic lunchbox sandwich.

The reason is not the sandwich, itself, but the peanut butter.

The concern, school officials say, is that students with peanut allergies will come in contact with the peanut butter.

In some cases, peanut allergies can result in anaphylatic shock or even death.

The danger, health officials say, is not just from ingesting the peanut butter, but also from breathing fumes or coming in contact with peanuts or peanut oil products.

Food allergies, once rare, are becoming more commonplace.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and National Center for Health Statistics, between 1997 and 2007, the prevalence of food allergies increased 18 percent among children under age 18.

More and more schools have been forced to respond to the situation with action plans and guidelines -- including making staff more aware of "hidden" peanut ingredients in food and non-food items, discouraging food sharing and suggesting more frequent handwashing.

There are even counties and states that have responded to the growing problem by going peanut-free, said Allison Pridgen, director of student support services for Wayne County Public Schools.

"That's not a point that we are it," she said Friday.

Which is not to say that provisions are not being made.

In Wayne County Schools, she said, there are an array of allergies represented -- including gluten, yeast, latex and chalk.

Ultimately, she said, it all boils down to what the district can do to ensure the safety of the children.

Peanut allergies are not a new situation for the county school system, Mrs. Pridgen said.

"It has been an emerging issue over the past 10 years," she said. "It's like any other medical condition. Based on recommendations or a doctor's order that may come from a pediatrician, we have to make the health care plan for the child and then make schoolwide or classroom-wide plans based on the particular indication for that child."

There are other things to consider, Mrs. Pridgen said. It is not simply a matter of prohibiting a child from bringing a peanut butter sandwich in a lunchbox, but rather all the ramifications associated with them.

"There are ingestion allergies where the child can't eat peanut butter and then you have the more environmental allergies where the child can't be in the cafeteria where any peanut products are being served that day," she said.

Even a tissue box that someone has handled or residue left on a table could be dangerous to an allergic child, added Ken Derksen, public information officer for the district.

"This is not just about a peanut butter sandwich," Mrs. Pridgen said. "There are peanut products and peanut oils that are incorporated in other foods."

That means food service personnel must be aware of the ingredients of every item that is served in school cafeterias.

"Barbara Ward, director of child nutrition, works feverishly going through the contents list of every item," Mrs. Pridgen said.

There are no districtwide policies in place currently against peanut butter, officials say. Instead, the situation is managed on a school-by-school basis.

With the start of a new school year, letters were sent home this week by several schools where students have been diagnosed with the allergy.

At this time, only two schools, Northeast Elementary and Norwayne Middle schools outlaw peanuts and peanut products. Northeast's policy has been in place for two years, with Norwayne adding the restriction this year.

"Anytime we have a student with that in a school, then we do restrict any peanut products," said Olivia Pierce, executive director of community relations, media and technology. "If you read labels now, even if the product does not have peanuts in it, where it was processed may be a company that processes products with the same machinery that came in contact with peanuts or peanut oil. ... You never know, like in a cafeteria, even if a child does not bring a peanut butter sandwich, they may have a product that has a connection in some other way."

Others schools have decided to handle the situation internally, Derksen said. As the need arises, he added, they might consider a similar restriction.

Officials say they try to be sensitive to parental concerns, but are faced with doing what's best for 19,000-plus students on a daily basis.

"When you consider anaphylactic shock, it's not a pleasant situation to have to airlift a child because they have had a medical crisis that requires us to do that," Mrs. Pridgen said. "So we err on the side of caution.

"We know this is frustrating for parents, but we hope that they will use it to expose their children to options other than peanut butter."

Fortunately, not all cases are extreme, and for many students, particularly in the upper grades, the allergic child is comfortable managing his or her own exposure to peanuts.

"Most are able to say, 'I can't have that (to eat),'" Mrs. Pridgen said. "But in the event that the child is going through the typical lunch line, we also have their lunch file flagged so whoever is working will know."

School officials also work hard to ensure each child's privacy, while faced with having to treat the issue as they do any other disability.

"You can't isolate that child because of a disability or identify that child," Derksen said. "With environmental (allergies), even if they kept the peanut butter sandwich in the lunchroom and had the student eat in the classroom, it can still be on (a student's) hands when they're handling things or on their breath."

One countywide change implimented this year is the elimination of the peanut butter sandwich as the third option at lunch. Instead, schools offer two entrees for students to choose from, Derksen said.

"With high school children, they have typically dealt with it long enough, they know to avoid the cafeteria when a peanut product is being served or they don't choose a peanut product," Mrs. Pridgen said. "But with elementary children, they are not quite as astute to be thinking about that allergy every day. So we usually have to be a little stronger with safeguards for that level."

The bottom line, Derksen said, is that the issue is managed on a case-by-case basis as warranted, based not on convenience but on safety.

"We're trying very hard to put accommodations in place so that items don't have to be removed from the districtwide menu," Mrs. Pridgen added.