It is a topic that brings on emotionally charged debate across the nation, the world even, and often ends in gridlock and hard feelings. The best presidential candidate? The solution to rising healthcare costs? The employment crisis in America? Nope.
The decision schools are making about whether to serve peanut products in their cafeteria. And in rare instances, the decision to make the entire school peanut free.
I recently sat in a school board committee meeting dedicated to determining their stance on this hot topic. I had the opportunity to witness the emotion behind both sides of the argument, and to acknowledge the validity within each argument. I know these conversations are becoming increasingly common across the country as the incidence of food allergy among children is on the rise.
Let me share with you some of the conversations that took place, my take on them as an allergy parent, and some words of wisdom to anyone who must engage in either side of this conversation. Or at least my version of wisdom.
Diving right into the frenzy of emotion, I'll start by trying to capture the vantage point of the cafeteria workers and school nutrition staff who were present. Their first observation was that children rejected the taste of the soybutter product, and that allergic parents complained because it was not dairy free (the prepackaged sandwich version). They further expressed concern that children who were on a free lunch program counted on lunch being provided for them, and often would chose not to eat if peanut butter was not present as an option. There was genuine concern for the children choosing to be hungry rather than chose an alternative.
My take: It's true, there are students who will chose to be hungry. As a child on free lunch I regularly drank the milk, ate the canned fruit of the day, and threw the rest out. Think about the battles you have over dinner at home. Kids are picky. They can and will find something to put in their tummy to keep them from starving. Choosing to be hungry? It happens.
The difference here is that allergic children can not chose whether to have an allergic reaction or not. Choosing to be hungry will not kill a child, but an allergic reaction could. Also? Children don't learn to eat outside of their comfort zone by serving only foods within their comfort zone. The adapt only after repeated exposure and lack of ability to make the familiar choice.
Truthfully, I think the prepackaged Uncrustable is a perfect compromise. The school is already providing this. It takes preparation out of the school's kitchen, each sandwich is individually sealed and wrapped so the peanut butter within will not contaminate any other surface in the kitchen during food preparation or storage. Run with it, I say.
The administrator present did not understand how serving peanut butter or not would make a significant impact, as students were still free to bring in their own peanut butter sandwich. Thus, peanut butter is still present and still a risk factor.
My take: Peanut butter in the food preparation area can lead to cross contamination of other foods as well as preparation areas, leading to unintentional allergen exposure and hard to trace reactions. Children who bring in their own lunch do not contaminate the food preparation, only their area of the table. There is still risk for allergic children, but it is not as great and is more easily managed.
One allergy parent brought up that the district had eliminated pork from it's menu in an effort to simplify the lunch process for those students who avoid pork due to religious preference. Cafeteria personnel were quick to point out this was a practical decision, as going through the ingredients present in each dish with each of the pork avoiding students was dramatically slowing progress through the lunch time, costing valuable eating time to be lost for many students.
My take: Eliminating food in order to save time seems like an illogical argument to me. It seems like an easy task to put a sign up by each food declaring it to be pork-free, so the children can identify on sight and not need to ask. In addition, no physical harm comes from accidental ingestion that is against a religious belief. Accidental ingestion of an allergen can stop the entire school while the EMS responds to a potentially serious allergic reaction. No disrespect intended, but these repercussions do not carry the same weight.
My final thoughts: I would never ask a school to ban an allergen. Ever. My daughter has multiple allergens, at varying degrees of severity. I know hundreds of allergy parents with so many different allergens. Tell me which school would ban dairy products to protect a child with a contact sensitive anaphylactic reaction. It really is a slippery slope, if you ban one child's allergen how can you say no to the parents of a child with a different allergen? It also harbors a false sense of security among staff when they feel the threat is not present, and they do not feel the need to be as vigilant in watching for reactions.
Instead, I prefer to work with each school to find safe accommodations for each child as an individual. Educate the staff about how to keep each student safe, put safety protocols in place to make it achievable.
If you have to enter into this conversation some things to remember: everyone has the same goal. Safe and healthy children. Try to take the emotion out of the conversation and discuss the facts, as the more emotion you bring to the conversation the less people are able to hear your message. Also, approach any meeting with an attitude of teamwork. Striving to find a win-win solution helps everyone benefit, and makes it more pleasant to work with you!