Schools Change Food Policies over Allergy Hazards
Reported by Sheryl Rich-Kern on Monday, August 7, 2006.
That’s because about one in five reactions occurs in school.
And some can be life-threatening.
Increasingly, New Hampshire school administrators are keeping food allergens as far away as possible from the kids who suffer from them.
NHPR’s Sheryl Rich-Kern reports.
But not this year.
Principal Ken Johnson explains the school’s new rules.
KenJohnson: The policy itself is pretty simple. It simply states that food and drinks will no longer be permitted in the hallway classrooms, or common areas. Lunch and drinks will be consumed exclusively in the cafeteria.
The new policy averts a frightening scenario.
Imagine a kid with extreme allergies. He has lunch in a confined area of the cafeteria.
Then he walks into the hallway and catches a whiff of a home made peanut butter cookie.
Within moments, his reaction to peanuts leaves him struggling to breathe.
KenJohnson: There has been a significant increase in the number of kids who are coming to school with issues having to do with allergens, including those kids who have the most severe reactions to allergens, such as, we would call it anaphylactic shock, where exposure, consumption, could actually be fatal.
Johnson says schools across the state are ramping up to deal with this hazard. First, because they want to keep kids safe.
But on top of that, they could be held liable under federal law.
KenJohnson: I did read a case recently in an article where a school apparently did not meet the needs of a child and the costs legally to the school alone was about $180,000, let alone any law suit that might be forthcoming.
Johnson says parents and staff are most worried about airborne reactions to nut oils.
Over 90 percent of fatalities triggered by food are from nuts.
So Johnson has banned cooking foods with peanut oil in the cafeteria.
Mark Joyce is executive director of the state school administrator’s association. He sees more schools taking these steps.
MarkJoyce: Way back 30 plus years ago when we had the epi-pen invention if you will for kids who were severely allergic to bee stings. That has kind of spread now to foods. And so the precautions schools are taking have become more comprehensive as the needs have become more acute.
Elaine Van Dyke is the director of nutritional services at the state board of education.
She says these new policies to control where and what types of food are permitted in school are helpful, but administrators need to recognize the limits of what they can accomplish.
ElaineVanDyke: I see a number of schools over the years who are saying, look, this is too scary for us, we are going to do THIS. The problem with that is that all foods are not served in the cafeteria. So if you make a peanut-free cafeteria, have you really made a peanut-free environment? No, not even close.
Today, as families get ready to go back to school, buying backpacks and new clothes, school districts are scrambling to get their food policies in writing.
The schools' attitudes are a far cry from the culture of a decade ago.
In the mid-90's, Lisa Pleat formed the food allergy group of southern New Hampshire to help parents interact with school staff.
She says the state has come a long way.
LisaPleat: I think they understand now, as opposed to ten, twelve years ago, that this is a problem that is not going away. And sometimes those things take a time in a school system for people to understand.
For now, Merrimack High School faces the challenge of explaining why eating a cookie in a hallway is such a big deal.
But, as Principal Ken Johnson says, once you describe the consequences, the students get it.
For NHPR news, I’m Sheryl Rich-Kern.