Friday, March 05, 2010

Nut free - oh, we should be so lucky!

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.


  1. Wow! That was beautifully said. Thank you!

  2. This is a tough nut...(sorry, couldn't resist). At Liv's school, there has always been a peanut free table. 2 of the children are genuinely allergic and how frightening for their parents. The other 3 children at the table, I am convinced are not allergic, but for some reason, their parents are taking precautions. I say this because I have witnessed one child eating a snickers bar in HER OWN CAR, HANDED TO HER BY HER MOTHER. Either this parent is brain dead or desperately needs attention and is seeking it through hr child, or perhaps the child had a rash or something once and the child's md cautioned them to watch her peanut intake.

    Medical literature suggests that peanut allergies are not really rising as some suspect, but there is what is called a "haze line." This means that parents list their child as peanut allergic when they are not really or it is simply suspected that they might be.

    But none of this matters really, does it? I mean, if there is even one child to be saved, we must do it. And violating a no peanut rule is simply ridiculous. I am very grateful that it hasn't come to that with Liv's school. We are not allowed to bring anything with peanuts as treats and we honor the no peanut table. So far, it is doing the trick. If more people acted accordingly, we would not have to ban that nutritious little nut.

  3. Thanks for a great post. With a son that has a life threatening allergy to peanuts, I am always curious about the hostility surrounding this issue. What is the big deal? Keep the peanuts home, save a kid. Done. I guess I would say to the parents that get offended about nut bans - put yourself in the shoes of those parents with kids that have severe allergies. Wouldn't you do everything possible to keep your young children safe and alive?

  4. Thank you for commenting, Greta and Stephanie, and welcome to the blog!

    @Maria - That's interesting (and heartening) that peanut allergies are not actually on the rise. It does seem as though grade n has, say, 1 in 40, and grade n-2 has one in 20, and grade n-4 one in 15... but it makes sense that the "haze line" is what's at work there. Nonetheless, as you say, one kid at risk is an unacceptable risk. This is a concept I've tried to get across to parents who want to know exactly how many kids at our school are affected, as if it would make any difference in what we must do about it.

  5. Peanut stupidity, we should all learn more about it. In my case I love them, buy them, consume them. I would give them to my dog, until I learned that it makes their hair fall out, and some nuts (macademia, brazils) are highly toxic to dogs. No more -- John in Jersey.