By Kathy Franklin
Most parents of children with severe allergy to peanuts or tree nuts, or both, would love to send them to a nut-free school. Banning nuts would lessen the risk of a life-threatening allergic reaction occurring at school, which is historically, and sometimes tragically, one of the most frequent locales for reactions. But I’m not convinced banning nuts at school is a good idea. I’m not convinced it’s a bad idea, either.
The argument for creating a totally nut-free school environment is obvious. It’s safer. If there are no nuts around, your child can’t accidentally ingest one, or accidentally touch one. This is especially relevant when it comes to peanut butter, almond butter, Nutella, and the like, which have a unique ability to cling to surfaces. Accidentally drop a pb & j sandwich, or a knife holding peanut butter, and it’s likely that some will rub off onto the table, chair, floor, clothing, or sneakers, and remain there for hours. Some will remain on the knife, too, even if it’s not visible. If you’re allergic to corn, say, and a few kernels fall, they’re easy to spot, and they’ll fall on the floor. They’re not going to attach to the underside of the table.
The primary danger in a “no nuts allowed” setting is the false sense of security it may create. There is no guarantee that “totally nut-free” is achievable. There is always the possibility of mislabeling, of misreading ingredients, of mistakes on the part of outside suppliers, of a half-eaten candy bar left in someone’s backpack or coat pocket, of a parent who’s eaten walnut pesto for lunch coming to school to watch a volleyball game, volunteer in the classroom, or attend a meeting, carrying a leaking doggy-bag or some lunch residue on a jacket. The teachers and the school staff must still be vigilant and trained to recognize and treat an allergic reaction; you wouldn’t want anyone to think they can relax and forget about the dangers of food allergy. And you wouldn’t want the child to be careless, either. She still has to check all ingredients, avoid taking chances, and always keep her meds at hand.
Schools That Are Not Nut-Free
Many people argue that a nut-free environment is unrealistic, even counterproductive. These children, even the youngest, need to learn how to live safely in the real world. Experience, especially within the (hopefully) supportive environment of a school, will teach them useful strategies that will help them deal safely outside the school walls. Success will breed confidence and lower anxiety. A school’s job is to teach, and eating safely in the midst of allergens is an important lesson they need to learn. The dairy-allergic kids, the-egg-allergic kids, the fish-allergic kids have to do this, so why not the nut-allergic kids? (I know, I know. There’s something extra deadly about nut reactions, it’s the most common, and it’s a relatively easy ban to implement. Just trying to present a balanced argument here.) Gymnastics are dangerous, too. Yet we don’t ban gymnastics in schools, we just take all reasonable precautions to make the experience as safe as possible. My daughter broke her ankle sliding into second base, and my son once cracked open his skull playing rugby. Life is dangerous, and school can be dangerous. I’m not trying to be cavalier, I’m simply pointing out that there are very real dangers everywhere, and we take reasonable steps to avoid the dangers. If a school asks you to let them help your child learn to protect herself, why not accept the offer?
I sometimes recall a lovely, confident young woman with a nut allergy who spoke at a FAAN conference for patients and parents, some years ago. She was about 20, and described how she lived comfortably in a college apartment where her roommates ate nuts. Frequently. They took precautions, keeping the nuts away from other foods, and she observed safe food preparation practices. It didn’t bother her. She was fine with it, because that’s how she grew up. Her family kept nuts in the house when she was living at home, too. This was her choice, and her preference, in college. She was a strong advocate of learning to live safely in the real world.
This was quite eye-opening for me. And frightening, at first. I’ve always chosen to make our home the one safe place where my son didn’t have to worry about accidental exposure. No nuts, no sesame, no eggs in my house, ever. The few items that were possibly contaminated, with “may contain” labeling, carried a bright green sticker that said “Not for Max.” I think it’s a good idea, for those parents whose kids are allergic to many foods that must be in the house, to flip this strategy and use stickers that read “Safe for Sam.” That will lessen the risk of mistakes. No sticker, no eating. Very helpful to babysitters, too.
(When he finally outgrew the egg allergy, at age 14, we started bringing a wider array of cookies and cakes into our kitchen. A little Entenmann’s here, some Pepperidge Farm there. Within a year, I’d gained ten pounds. And my son never did develop a taste for those egg-containing foods.)
I feel pretty strongly that the best solution is an individualized one. How allergic is the child? Touch-sensitive or not? Is there a school nurse or not? If there are four nut-allergic kindergarteners out of twenty, it’s probably a good idea to keep all nuts out of that particular classroom. If there are four in each classroom, in every grade, you should seriously consider keeping all nuts out of the lunchroom, perhaps out of the entire school, if only to preserve the sanity of your faculty and staff. Forcing a child to eat alone every day in the nurse’s office, based on one reaction years ago, seems pretty extreme to me. But that may be an appropriate solution for a child who’s so sensitive he’s had frequent reactions. Some schools have had success with designated peanut-free lunchroom tables; others have reversed the roles and created a peanut table. You can sit in only one specified area at lunch if you are eating peanut butter. Both options seem quite reasonable.
I also don’t think that strategically it’s a good idea to demand a ban, even if you’ve decided it’s absolutely necessary for your child’s safety. Demanding a nut-free school, or demanding any kind of special treatment, will set up an adversarial relationship that does not benefit your cause, or your child. It just makes people defensive. I think what’s essential is to establish a working relationship with the school, and to explore, “How can we make this work for both the school, for my child, and for all the other children?” “How can I, the parent, help you deal with this?” “How can you, the school, help me deal with this?” and, most importantly, “How can we all help Sarah deal with this?”
Creative solutions are possible, even in the face of longstanding custom. I read a recent article in the New York Times about the pennant-winning Texas Rangers, who somehow beat my beloved Yankees and advanced to the World Series. The traditional clubhouse celebration upon winning a post-season series includes pouring champagne over each other, in between gulps straight from the bottle. Watching the jubilant players spray the bubbly everywhere, drenching team executives, reporters, anyone and everything in sight, is always amusing. This year, the team decided to forgo the post-season champagne, out of respect and consideration for one of their stars, a recovering alcoholic who successfully completed a painful and arduous rehab. This is no tiny sacrifice, by the way; these are athletes who’ve dreamed of this special celebration, including champagne – especially champagne – since they were little boys. All their hard work, all their dreams over the years, had one goal: making it to the World Series. They deserve the celebration of their dreams. They’ve earned it. Which is why it’s all the more admirable that they chose, as a team, to alter the precious tradition to make it safer and more comfortable for one player. And, after all, ginger ale makes just as much of a sticky mess as champagne. One small sacrifice, one huge message.
This is what we should all be aiming for, in my opinion. Each community, or school, or classroom, or soccer team, or Brownie Troop, needs to come up with a solution that works for them, maximizing the safety of its individual members, whatever their special needs, while minimizing the inconvenience and stress to everyone else. It’s about inclusion, mutual respect, empathy, and simple old-fashioned consideration for each other.
Hold the door open for the person behind you, offer your seat on the subway to the man on crutches or the pregnant woman, don’t bring ice cream into the home of your milk-allergic friend, and don’t hand an open bottle of champagne to someone who’s worked hard to achieve sobriety. Is that too much to ask?
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