Question of the Week

September 22, 2003


Peanut butter cures lunch-box blues... It seems like a never-ending problem -- what to put in school lunches. Kids like something this week, hate it the next. And aside from what kids will eat, there's peer pressure, too. Younger children will send home entire lunches uneaten, and older kids often refuse to be seen with a bagged lunch, say several Chronicle readers polled about what their kids eat for lunch....Among the foods that the kids do eat, two things came up most often: peanut butter and noodles. Of course, almost all of the kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Most go for noodles...So why not put peanut butter and noodles together? In today's recipe..."

This article, aimed at helping busy, working parents trying to assure that their children have a good lunch (good nutrition AND good taste), seemed to have the perfect solution. Most kids like peanut butter. Using peanut butter to add good taste to a variety of lunches (with out adding junk food) seemed to be the "cure" for the lunch-box dilemma.

While the headline above: "Peanut butter cures lunch-box blues" appeared on August 20, 2003, less than three weeks later (September 9, 2003) peanut butter was no longer the solution. It was the problem.

"At the center of the storm is a 5-year-old boy enrolled at Valle Verde Elementary School in Walnut Creek. He suffers from 'peanut and tree nut' allergies that his mother says are life-threatening. As a result, school officials have taken extraordinary steps in Pod C, a group of kindergarten classrooms at Valle Verde that share a common central area....[K]ids' backpacks and lunch boxes were searched for peanut butter sandwiches and such. District spokeswoman Sue Berg acknowledged that 'the principal said the first day they did have to confiscate or set aside' some food."

Students attending school in these kindergarten classes are not to bring peanut or tree nut products to school. The mother of the kindergartner said that "with the measures taken by the school, her son faces no threat. 'This is nothing new. This is a situation of parents who are not informed.'"

Whether parents agree or disagree with the measures taken by the school, there are strong emotions on both sides. Some understand and support the accommodations. Others see this as disrupting the lives of many to accommodate one. Letters to the editor on both sides have come in, one from a ten-year-old follows:

"Editor -- In your newspaper it says the parents in Walnut Creek want a child with peanut allergies not to go to school. But at my school there is a boy who has bad peanut butter, dairy and chocolate products allergies. Everyone knows about it, so we never bring peanut butter to school and he is fine. Everyone is his friend. The parents in Walnut Creek should let the person with the peanut butter allergy have friends at school. They should think less about themselves and more about him.
RUTH SHAPIRO, 10, Moraga."

This letter is the only one to see things from the child's perspective:

"The parents in Walnut Creek should let the person with the peanut allergy have friends at school." It's hard enough to start school--or start a new school--especially if you know something about you is going to make you different from the other kids. Are they going to like me? Are they going to accept me for who I am? With the other parents reacting so negatively to the child, one can only imagine what the other children are saying to him (what they have come up with on their own, or what they have heard at home and brought to school to share).

This is a health issue on different levels. If your school is facing a similar medical issue, then help is available. Schools around the country have dealt with severe allergies for years. One option to help educate staff and parents about the issues is a:
"Free Food Allergy Information for School Staff FAAN (The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network) now has a limited number of FREE food allergy information programs for schools. If you haven't already done so, nominate your school for the special edition of our School Food Allergy Program (SFAP). The comprehensive, multimedia program includes a video, an EpiPen® trainer, a poster, and a binder filled with more than 100 pages of information and standardized forms. Thousands of schools across the country have used it to safely and successfully manage their students with food allergies."

Food allergies are not new and not uncommon. If it is not an issue at your school now, that does not mean is hasn't been in the past, or will not be one in the future.

"Peanut allergy is the most common food allergy especially in the U.S. where peanuts are a popular dietary item and peanut butter is introduced at an early age. Throughout the world, cows' milk allergy is the most common food allergy among infants due to the widespread ingestion of milk during the first months of life. Any food which contains protein has the
potential to elicit an allergic reaction in someone. The most common allergenic foods tend to be foods with high protein content that are frequently consumed. The exceptions are beef, pork, chicken, and turkey which are uncommonly allergenic despite their frequent consumption and high protein content."
(More information about the physical affects that allergies have on the body is available at this Access Excellence site.)

Another issue is one of mental health. Regardless of whether you think the school board handled things properly, there is still the question of: what are the kindergartners going to learn from this situation? What is the one five-year-old who is getting all the attention going to take away from all this? How is this mentally and emotionally a different learning environment from that of the ten-year-old (and her classmates) who wrote a letter to the editor? What responsibilities does the school have for creating a physically and mentally safe learning environment for students?

How long is it the responsibility of the school? In kindergarten? What happens in third grade? Junior high? High school? What about life outside of school?

This is an issue airlines have been asked to address, as well. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network offers suggestions for those with peanut allergies.

"Flying With a Peanut Allergy...
As of May, 2001, United, U.S. Air, and TWA are the only major U.S. airlines that do not serve peanut snacks. You should confirm this with them when booking reservations because airlines have been known to change their policy. This does not mean they are peanut-free, because they may have peanut ingredients in their meals or other passengers may carry peanuts on the plane with them. No airline can guarantee a peanut-free flight. However, some airlines are willing to serve non-peanut snacks upon request; others will make no accommodations...."
(Updated tips:

I have never been on a flight where I was asked not to bring specific snacks aboard. I have been on flights where "airline pretzels" replaced "airline peanuts" as the snack passed down the aisle. I don't remember which airline, and I couldn't even tell you if it was before, after, or during, May of 2001.

When was the last time you had someone new over for dinner, or went to a pot luck? In school and beyond, people have foods they need to avoid for medical reasons, and those that they choose to avoid--either for medical or personal reasons. Were you asked to exclude any specific foods? Did you ask about any special dietary needs the people might have? Would you consider it courteous or prying if someone asked you? Is it your responsibility to ask?

Our first question this week is taken from the article about the five-year-old in Walnut Creek, California. The entire article can be found at:

Questions of the Week:
"For years, schools across the nation have struggled with how to balance the needs of severely allergic child -- like the one in Walnut Creek -- with the desires of children who love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But the question remains: How far should schools, airlines and other institutions go to accommodate people with severe allergies?" How accommodating would you be willing to be if this were your school, friend, or relative? How might your opinion of the situation, and what you were willing to do, be different if the person you were being asked to accommodate was a close friend or relative?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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