Severe food allergies are a growing health concern, with an estimated 6 million children affected—more than a 50 percent increase since 2011. While adults with food allergies can manage a life-threatening allergy, young children are not always equipped to make smart choices about their food allergies, putting them at a greater risk. Children are also more likely to trust adults who may not be aware of their allergy or cross-contamination risks.
There are eight major food allergens—milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 16 to 18 percent of children with food allergies have had a reaction from accidentally eating food allergens at school.
So why are schools cracking down on peanuts and tree nuts? The oils in nuts often leave residue behind on table tops, doorknobs and other surfaces. If children are exposed to nut residue and then touch their eyes or mouth, that could be enough to cause a severe reaction. All children should feel safe at school, so it’s important to create low-risk environments for children with food allergies.
For many years, “nut-free” campuses were on the rise in an attempt to create guaranteed safe places for children with severe nut and peanut allergies. This meant no nuts or cross-contaminated products were allowed in school lunches, snacks brought from home and any food brought for special occasions. Unfortunately, this did not help reduce the occurrence of anaphylactic reactions in schools. In fact, one study showed that epinephrine use was higher in schools with nut-free policies compared to those without.
Rather than going nut-free, there are a variety of measures schools can take to reduce the risk for peanut- or tree nut-allergic children, including nut-free school lunches, nut-free school kitchens or designated nut-free lunch tables and classrooms.
Nut allergies in Oklahoma City public schools
The OKC school district was previously completely nut-free, meaning nuts were not allowed on school campuses. However, after research showing “nut-free” is not necessary safer, the district has adjusted regulations to create a balanced, low-risk environment where all schools are “nut-aware” but not nut-free. For parents of nut-allergic students, this may seem like a step in the wrong direction.
Deborah Taylor, who is a registered and licensed dietician and a school nutrition specialist, is the associate director of nutrition services for all Oklahoma City public schools. She explains why nut-free schools are not necessarily safer for nut-allergic students.
“In nut-free schools, it’s actually more likely to have an exposure issue, because students get over-confident,” Taylor says. Banning nuts from schools can encourage nut-allergic students to be less cautious of their allergy. Taylor also explains that banning nuts from schools can send the wrong message to non-allergic students, that nuts are bad or unhealthy.
Although nuts are now allowed in the OKC school district, it takes every precaution to ensure students with nut allergies can participate and feel included, without the threat of allergens.
“We have no open peanut butter containers or peanuts oils in school kitchens,” Taylor says. Instead, OKC public schools offer sealed Jamwiches and individually sealed cups of peanut butter. They also provide nut-free lunch tables for students who need them. These tables welcome all students who don’t have nuts in their lunch, so that nut-allergic students don’t feel isolated.
“In extreme cases, of course we can pull anything containing peanuts or tree nuts from the menu during a nut-allergic student’s lunch period,” Taylor says. If a parent or student is still anxious, school officials are still open to discussing banning nuts entirely from campuses, but encourage parents and students to find a way to successfully manage severe food allergies without having to miss out or feel isolated.
“It’s not healthy to be anxious all the time,” Taylor says. “You can have a life-threatening allergy and not be scared all the time.” Taylor is committed to creating an environment where nut-allergic students can learn how to live with their allergy, while also having a safe environment where students do not have to feel afraid or isolated.
How to reduce the risk of nut allergens for your child
The OKC school district is making strides in nut-allergy safety and education. However, for children with severe food allergies, there is no such thing as risk-free. If your child has a nut-allergy, it’s important to communicate with your child’s school, and make sure there is a plan in place in case of emergency. All school staff, administration, and potential chaperones should be aware of the emergency plan so that your child is taken care of at all times. If your child’s allergy is severe, he or she may qualify for a 504 plan or a Food Allergy Management and Prevention Plan (FAMPP).
The following steps can help you take control of your child’s safety and reduce the risk of life-threatening allergen exposure.
Having children with a severe food allergy can be stressful, especially when you can’t be there all the time to offer protection. Working with your school to create a low-risk environment is the best way to feel confident in your children’s safety when they’re away from home. This can also help prepare them to live a full, healthy life with their allergy.