There are several kids in my girls' school who have severe allergies to peanuts. Severe, as in life-threatening. If one of these kids inhales dust from a peanut being shelled or eaten nearby, or contacts oils from someone's peanut butter and jelly sandwich, they can go into anaphylaxis, which can kill them. Kill them. Their parents are are not making this up.
The school had restricted what foods were allowable in certain classrooms, and set up a "nut-free" table for these children to be able to eat their lunch safely in the cafeteria. These compromise measures weren't enough. Pistachio shells were found on the chairs of the nut free lunch table. A substitute teacher munched on a bag of peanuts within feet of a child with a life-threatening allergy to their dust. These and other violations, and some serious reactions experienced by children, led the school administration to declare this school to be Nut Free. No peanuts or peanut products are allowed. Not for snack, not for lunch, not in baked goods for sales or celebrations. No more. Not worth the risk.
When that news came out, I thought two things: "oh phew," for my friends with severely allergic children, and "oh no," for my PB&J-loving Bean, who'd been eating no-salt-no-sugar peanut butter and fruit spread sandwiches almost every single school day of her life (note to parents who scorn PB&J for lunch as nutritionally equivalent to Sugar Pops for breakfast: it isn't necessarily so). I was hard pressed to come up with a healthy alternative (bologna? um, no.) So I posted a cry for help on Facebook, and within a half hour, had several viable alternatives. We went with sunflower seed butter, which looks and spreads just like peanut butter. The Bean was unconvinced. She narrowed her eyes in suspicion, examined the jar, and agreed to try a tiny bite before she'd reject it outright. And the verdict was: "Yup, that's fine." Crisis averted, back to lunch packing as usual. Now her only problem is explaining to well-meaning adults in school that she isn't eating peanut butter in defiance of the new rule, but that it's really sunflower seed butter.
Wait a minute, you say? Who would defy the new rule, when children's lives are at stake?
Well, according to an article in our local weekly paper, one such person is an actual member of our School Committee, who reportedly stated that if she were a parent of a child at our school, she would send in peanut butter anyway, and presumably wouldn't trouble herself over the risk it posed to any other children. Unless the report has it wrong, what we have here is a School Committee member essentially giving the finger to both school administration and parents. Yikes. Many voting parents now trust she won't be running for re-election when her term's up.
Some parents (not the ones with allergic kids, mind you) have expressed concern that a nut ban won't help allergic children cope with living in the "real world," and that because the kids will someday have to get apartments, go to college, etc., banning nuts to help prevent their death from anaphylaxis in elementary school is doing them no favors. Now, I'm sure that the parents of kids with allergies are truly touched by this heartwarming thought for their children's well-being. However, fear not, concerned parents! The children will be grownups when they get their own apartments! What they need now is just a safe place to learn to read, so they'll understand the lease. (And spare us the charade. If you're pissed off because you can't send your own kid to school with a peanut butter sandwich, say so if you must, and own it. Don't dress up your objections as some kind of concern for the allergic children. Nobody's buying it.)
At a meeting to discuss the new policy, someone suggested that the allergic kids be made to eat their lunch in the nurse's office. The idea would be merely misguided (the social implications are unacceptable), had it not been put forward by a person running for election to the School Committee. Indeed. This person made a point of saying that she understands allergies because she's been a respiratory therapist for a gazillion years, and then suggested that healthy children eat in the nurse's office. Where, you know, sick kids go before they're sent home. You'd think that might have occurred to her, being a respiratory therapist and all.
Another objection that gets thrown around a lot (and was voiced with the requisite sneer by the "let 'em eat alone" School Committee candidate) comes in the form of the "where does it stop?" meme. Do we ban fragrances, these people say? Flowers? Tide laundry detergent, if anyone's allergic to that? Again, common sense appears to be in short supply. The peanut issue is life-threatening. Nobody's suggesting we ban Tide because some kids get a rash from it. Life-threatening. It seems a pretty simple distinction.
I don't understand the hostility this issue has brought out in people. I don't understand the "we shouldn't have to accommodate blah blah blah" mentality, that attitude of entitlement -- "it's not my problem so I shouldn't have to change a thing." Why shouldn't we make accommodations -- isn't it the right thing to do? Wouldn't you want the school community to come together to support you if it were your kid in this situation? The lack of empathy is blowing me away. It's been said that empathy should go both ways, and I admit I'm having kind of a problem with that. I just don't see those of us whose kids aren't allergic to nuts as aggrieved parties. We're lucky, is what we are, and we should help make school safe for everyone.
Will a nut ban make our school perfectly safe for kids allergic to nuts? Of course not. But it will go a long way to reducing incidents they've had there in recent months, and those have got to stop. I support the majority of families in our community, who are taking this in stride and not squawking to reporters and talk radio blowhards about how wronged they feel they've been. Peanuts endanger some kids' lives? Then of course we won't send nuts to school. It's a no-brainer -- and by the way, kids get that. It's grownups who have a problem with it.
At any rate, kudos to the school administration for sticking to their decision, and for assuring people that the nut ban is in effect for as long as there are severely allergic kids in the school. Nobody seems to understand why, but it appears that severe food allergies are becoming more common. The issue is not going away. I do hope that as a community we can leave behind "why should I have to help with this?" and move toward "what can I do to help with this?". That's the lesson I want my daughters to take from it.