How One Child's Allergy Effects an Entire School

One of today’s most polarizing issues among parents of school aged children involves whether or not to allow peanuts and peanut related products inside the building. For those of you without children, you may be scratching your heads wondering what the fuss is all about. What's the big deal about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

Within schools, battles are being waged between parents who have children with peanut allergies and want a ban on all nuts and tree nuts in school, and parents who do not want one child’s allergy dictating what their own children eat.

Both sides of the issue have very strong points. Let’s examine what they are.

What Are Peanut Allergies?

In actuality, peanuts are not tree nuts like almonds or cashews; they are part of the legume family, which includes beans and peas. It is one of the most common and potentially fatal allergies. The body overreacts to the proteins released when eating this food, causing histimines to be released and reactions such as:

  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing
  • coughing
  • hoarseness
  • throat tightness
  • stomachache
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • itchy, watery, or swollen eyes
  • hives
  • red spots
  • swelling
  • a drop in blood pressure[1]

Some people are so highly allergic that even breathing air that has peanuts in them can cause them to go into anaphylaxis shock, a potentially life threatening condition.  They typically carry an  EpiPen, which delivers a measured dose of epinephrine, a drug that will permit the affected person to breathe again. [2]

A Basic Explanation of This Health Concern

Why Has There Been an Increase in Peanut and Nut Allergies?

Ask any Baby Boomer or senior citizen, and virtually no one can recall classmateswho suffered with this health issue.  I have been teaching since 1987, and early in my career, there was only one child in my class who had this problem. By the early 2000’s, this problem grew so exponentially that it was common for me to have several children in my class affected by this allergy. In fact, according to WebMD, peanut allergies have tripled between 1997-2008. [3]

Why the increase?

Some doctors and researchers theorize that we have become “too clean”, living in a world with too many antibacterial products that do not permit us to prevent natural infections.[3] This is called “the hygiene hypotheis”.[4]

Tied into "the hygiene hypothesis” is another theory that says that due to the rise of caesarian sections, children are not exposed to bacteria in the birth canal. Because of the lack of exposure to microorganisms, the immune system becomes somewhat compromised.[6]

Others believe that parents are too quick to reach for the antibiotic for illnesses that do not require such treatment. Harmless proteins are being attacked that in the past, were not.

A fourth theory links how peanuts are processed as a reason for the rise in allergies, while some think the increase is due to the act that it is more frequently reported than in the past.[3]

Dr. Dr. Scott Sicherer, a pediatrics professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, believes there is a link between children being indoors and receiving less vitamin D from sunlight because they spend so much time inside. The use of sunscreen also plays into this theory.[5]

Yet another reason people think there is an increase in nut allergies is environmental. We have a depleted ozone, the air is more polluted, and on top of that, many people at food that is unnatural and over processed.

While all of these ideas may be an answer, the truth is, they are all just theories.

One Mother's Opinion on This Issue

A Colorful Bracelet for Young Children

Once a parent gets a diagnosis of a life threatening peanut allergy, it is their job to teach their children how to cope in the world. One way for youngsters who may not have the verbal skills to communicate or ask if a food is safe is to wear this colorful medical bracelet. It alerts the adults around him or her that this child has an allergy.

Is a Peanut Free School the Solution?

The Battle Lines Are Drawn

Should Peanuts be Banned in Schools?Credit:

Photo from Morguefile

Across the United States, individual schools, as well as entire school districts, are becoming peanut free/nut free zones. Parents on both sides of the issue are pushing their agenda, with children being caught in the crossfire.

Parents of highly allergic children believe that their son or daughter has the absolute right to go to school without fear of having a life threatening reaction to another child’s snack or lunch. They have been called “helicopter parents” by the opposing side because they hover over their children and do not let them learn for themselves what is safe and what is harmful.  When will they be able to decide if a food is safe or not if they are not permitted the freedom to ask the question themselves?

Just like the "no tolerance" policy public schools have for bullying, parents of these children feel the same about having nuts in school. They want to be assured that when they drop their child off at school, they will be safe from a food that could possibly kill them.  While you can choose what your child brings in for lunch, an allergic child did not choose to be born with this life altering health problem.

Many schools are listening to the parents who cry the loudest, as they want to avoid any problems and of course, potential legal issues should a problem occur.

But is it fair to eliminate an entire healthy food group for the sake of a few children?

A Popular Book That Helps Young Children Understand This Illness

Allie the Allergic Elephant: A Children's Story of Peanut Allergies
Amazon Price: $62.60 Buy Now
(price as of Aug 11, 2016)
This book is perfect for preschool and primary school students. It helps explain to their classmates what their allergy is all about.

Should Your Child's Allergy Dictate My Child's Eating Habits?

Should one child's problem be everyone's problem?

Peanut Butter is the Perfect Protein-Except if Your Kid is AllergicCredit: parents can empathize with those who have children with a peanut allergy. But that sympathy goes out the window when the threat of a nut free school is on the horizon.

Peanut butter is a healthy, low cost protein. The vast majority of children eat it several times a week as their school lunch, as it is easy to prepare and it pleases even the most picky eater. I know of several children, including my younger daughter, who will not eat any other kind of cold protein for lunch. If I run out of a hot food to put inside her thermos, I know that I always have peanut butter and jelly as a substitute.

The economics of peanut substitutes is something to consider. Sunbutter and soy butter, which are non-allergenic substitute sources of protein, are at least double or triple the price of a jar of peanut butter. If you have several children in school, the cost adds up.

And what if they do not like those options?

How about children who are vegetarians or vegan and need an inexpensive protein source?

And if you are going to disallow peanut products in school how far do you go? Do you ban foods that “may contain peanuts”? How much of a say does one family have over another family’s grocery list and how much money they spend at the supermarket?

Although parents want a peanut free environment, children can still be exposed in school in other ways.  A library book can have peanut butter on it if a child was eating and reading at the same time.  A classmate may have had peanut butter for breakfast and not washed his/her hands completely and touches something a child with allergies touches.  Maybe a child did not brush his or her teeth and had nuts for breakfast.

Since there is always a risk for exposure, will banning peanuts really make a difference if a child is that allergic?

Is There Room for Compromise?

Creating a plan to appease both sides

As a parent and a teacher, I have been exposed to both sides of this issue. There is room for compromise if both sides are committed to making it work.

Children with peanut allergies are entitled to an environment that will not harm them. Children who love peanut butter are entitled to enjoy their favorite lunch.

The middle ground is knowledge.

Teachers who have a child with a peanut allergy in their class need to send a note home to the other parents on the first day of school, explaining that this is a nut free classroom and there will be no tolerance for any nut products. Snacks and party food should not contain nuts. This creates a safe classroom environment for the allergic child. If a child accidentally brings in a snack with nuts, it is disposed of properly. There is no margin for error, especially since parents have been forewarned.

A “peanut drill” should be held in class, the way a fire drill and lockdowns are practiced. Does a teacher know where the Epipen is and how to administer it? She needs to be trained in case the nurse is out to lunch. Other children in class should have a role-go to the teacher next door, call the office, run down to the nurse. Time is of the essence. Check the school policies and see if this particular medication can be kept inside the classroom.

Parents of these children should send a list of safe party foods for their children. Just because their child has an allergy, it does not mean that school parties have to be cancelled or changed. The food list should be given to the Head Room Mother to distribute to the other room and party moms on the list so they know what brands are fine to eat and which to avoid.

In the case of birthdays, a special box of snacks should be kept inside the classroom so the child can have a treat in the event that s/he is uncertain that the birthday goody is safe to eat.

Lunchtime is the main problem for children with peanut allergies. Many schools have a peanut free table for these children to sit at. Their friends who have safe lunches can join them so they are not sitting alone.

For those who have eaten peanut butter or nuts for lunch, they should wash their hands before playing on the playground or before entering the classroom.

Should schools ban peanuts? What is your opinion on this hot button issue?