Children's allergies a slippery, chewy, nutty slope for schools


Published: Monday, October 06, 2008


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  Tom Beck has added lactose-free milk at the Egg Harbor Township schools where he is the food service director.

"It's a little bit more expensive, but all the kids can drink it," he said. The district also buys a sealed, pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich so the school cafeteria staff won't have to personally handle peanut butter near other food.

"We find more and more students with food allergies today," Beck said. "Among the most common are nuts and dairy, things common in school lunches. If we can do little things to make it easier for us and the students, the parents appreciate it."

A newly revised state law requires school districts to develop policies for the management of food
allergies in schools. In Sep-tember, the state Department of Education posted a 15-page memo on how to implement the guidelines. Districts must find ways to accommodate students with allergies without seeming to discriminate against or punish them or other students.

It all seems very reasonable, until schools try to put it into practice. Then it can seem, well, nutty. Recent student and parent complaints in a Long Beach Island school in Ocean County show how upset they get when schools try to mess with what they perceive as their social time - lunch.

Many people still don't understand that a food allergy is nothing to sneeze at. A severe allergy can put a child into anaphylactic shock. Food is the primary target, but bee stings, chemicals and cleaning products also can endanger an allergic child.

The guidelines don't require districts to remove specific foods or items but suggest they "consider the benefits and ramifications of serving and/or removing allergen-containing foods."

Other recommendations include creating allergen-free tables, or allergen-full tables. Picture a cafeteria divided up based on what people eat, or don't eat, and you'll understand what got Long Beach Island students so upset.

The guidelines do not just apply to the cafeteria. School nurses must be closely involved, and even teachers must take precautions in the classroom. The guidelines cover cleaning procedures, field trips and the school bus. Finally, there is a reminder that teasing a student with an allergy constitutes bullying and advises against labeling a child in a way that might lead to them being harassed.

Beck said the process must begin at home, with parents who make sure the school is notified of any allergy issues. New debit card systems allow parents and schools to code allergy information so cafeteria cashiers can see if a student has an allergy and watch what they put on their tray.

"Communication is key," Beck said. "We all work with the parents and the school nurse, but we have to know what we're dealing with. Kids will still try to sneak things."



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