Dilemmas about Peanut Free Tables at School

These days when you walk into a school, it is inevitable that somewhere along the halls you will see at least one sign that says “Nut Free Classroom” or “Peanut Free Zone.” Often these areas flow into the lunchroom, and more and more our schools are setting aside peanut free tables in the lunchroom. These are tables where children with peanut allergies can have their lunch with no worries of peanut residue or oils contaminating their food or getting on their hands. These tables are a good idea, but as most good ideas do, this one comes with debate.

A major point of dispute surrounds the question of who decides if children with allergies have to sit at the peanut free tables. Is it the school nurse, the teacher, the parent or the child himself? Maybe kids can go there only if someone in their class has peanut products, or do they go there everyday regardless?

Ideally, it should be left up to the parents, and parents should enforce this. If you are not comfortable with your child spending every lunch hour at a separate table from his class, speak up. Or vice versa, if you are not comfortable having your child sit with everyone else and want a peanut free table in your lunchroom, speak up. In some schools, the administration or the lunchroom staff will mandate this, but it is ultimately the parent’s choice.

Whether to sit there or not may depend on the age of the child or the severity of the allergy. It also depends on the class rules (or school rules). Are peanuts and peanut products even allowed? Are the other students aware of the allergy and the severity? One option is to enforce that your child not sit near anyone with peanuts or products (residue is a factor, so this needs to be taken into consideration as well). Maybe your child can wash his spot specifically before sitting there, or have a lunchroom worker do that, and be able to move seats if someone with a peanut product is next to him.

Lunch is a very social time in school, so if a child is isolated to a peanut free table, he loses some of his privileges of social time. It is one of the few times to talk freely with friends throughout the day. Maybe one close friend can come with your child each day to the special table. There are lots of options with the peanut free tables; it’s not just black and white.

One thing to remember, tree nut allergies should not be lumped into peanut allergies. Unless you are having a completely “nut” free table, don’t combine the two. Though tree nuts hold the same dangers as peanut allergies (residue, oils, etc), the two can’t be combined because many kids with tree nut allergies eat lots of peanut butter and vice versa.

To be the most successful, it all just needs to be voluntary. Have the table available, let the parents and the kids decide if they will sit there or not. Plenty of children (and parents) are at ease as long as no one is eating peanut butter right next to them. Yet, having a peanut free table available provides comfort to many families with allergies. This article provides some more information on the reasoning behind this.

Severe allergies fall under ADA

Life-threatening allergies are considered a disability and are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a representative from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And just as school districts must make their buildings safe and accessible to people in wheelchairs, they must also make them safe for people suffering from severe allergies.

As with schools all over the country, there is controversy with the total nut bans in schools. Some families believe the ban goes to far and is a big inconvenience for them. Often peanut butter is the choice lunch for a few reasons – it packs well, it’s inexpensive,  it’s healthy, and kids eat it. But when it can be deadly, it becomes an issue.

People are also against total nut bans as it “creates a false sense of security.” What if a child ate peanut butter for breakfast, forgot to wash his hands and touches the pencil sharpener. Then the child with an allergy touches the same sharpener. It’s impossible to make the guarantee.

But severe allergies are listed under the ADA and now schools must provide the “safe” environment for children who are highly allergic or they can be prone to litigation. This is tough because though school systems provide guidelines, they don’t really provide specific rules or regulations and is up to local leadership to manage. It’s recommended that the schools communicate with not only families but also doctors of families to determine the best management strategies.

Not every allergy is severe, schools must remember, and the provisions must fit the student needs. I know often classes become allergy free when there is a child with an allergy, even if he or she doesn’t need that much. Also, under the ADA act, it requires schools to come up with appropriate policies which doesn’t always mean total bans.

However, if a total ban is required, it needs to be enforced. That can mean nut free classes, nut free lunchrooms/tables, overall nut free schools. And if something happens, the school is liable. Again, it needs to be a committee decision, involving doctors, parents and administration and come up with the best plan for the individual.

School cafeterias

It is important to communicate well about allergies with not only your child, but the cafeteria and the school administration and teachers.

Here are some other tips to insure that your child will be safe whether he eats school food or always brings from home:

• Make sure there is an allergy policy at school. Fill out the necessary medical paperwork to have on file at the school and maintain all medication with current expiration dates.
• Continually educate your child on age appropriate safety techniques, from no sharing or trading to asking questions about ingredients to identifying symptoms to self administering an Epipen.
• Talk to the cafeteria managers and make them aware of your child’s allergy. Ask for lists of menu items and ingredients of all food that is being served. Check in to things like food prep to evaluate risk of allergen contamination.
• Include your child in packing his lunch. Kids love to eat food they have helped prepare and make sure you provide plenty of healthy alternatives to his allergen to make sure he is getting a balanced diet.
• When packing and serving alternative foods, try to find foods that look as similar as possible to what other kids are eating if that is something important to you and your child. For instance, on pizza day at school, you could pack a gluten or dairy free pizza for your child if that is his allergy.
• Pack enough options so your child is not hungry if he is not the mood for something. You don’t want him being tempted to eat a friend’s food.
• Check on the cafeteria’s and classroom’s food allergy policy. Is there a separate table? Do you want/not want there to be one? How much do you want other children to know of your child’s allergy?
• Make sure your child can identify and report any symptoms he may experience and that he knows who can tell if his teacher is not in the cafeteria with him (often teachers have a break during lunch but there are assistants, lunch monitors or cafeteria staff he can tell).

Speaking with a teacher about peanut policies

I was having a conversation about my child’s allergies with the teacher and it led the teacher and I and the other room mom to another discussion: the teacher’s child. Her three year old son is allergic to nuts and peanuts. Of course, she worries about him and knows not only the risks of his allergy, but appropriate things to ask for. She is a bit discouraged (not to mention scared and nervous) because there are no peanut policies at his preschool.

And this is preschool! When toddlers eat peanut butter it’s not like adults eating it. All of the peanut butter does not get into their mouths. It’s on their hands and then they touch the tables and toys, and then, well, her child has a good chance of touching the same thing and then putting his hands in his own mouth. I don’t blame her one bit for being angry and upset.

I don’t know if others have peanut policies in preschool, but it seems there should be something in place. At that age, they may not be able to identify or relate their symptoms if something does happen, or they don’t know as well to stay away.

It reminded me way back when of when my child was diagnosed, and it’s a very frightening thing. As they get older, it does become more manageable, at least for us it has. Kids become more responsible, food becomes more contained. But you still worry. As a parent, I don’t know that that will ever stop.

Not all parents are educated about allergies as you may be 

Last night was open house in older daughter’s class, the one with the tree nut allergy. As the teacher was going over class procedure, homework, curriculum, everything related to school and class, she, of course, brought up allergies. I was touched and thankful she did this, but, wow, you should have seen the reactions from parents.

When the teacher said “tree nuts” everyone’s (well not really everyone’s but quite a few) face wore a question mark. She then said, “Walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts…” and sort of stopped. Hands went up, which I was glad to see since it meant interest/concern/something. Someone asked about other nuts, someone asked about peanut butter at lunch, the teacher looked at me with “help” on her face, so I asked if she wanted me to step in. She looked relieved so I gave my little blurb that my daughter is allergic to tree nuts, but not so severely as to restrict everyone else. I don’t think too many kids eat tree nut in elementary school, anyway, but there is the shared equipment issue and all of that.

I told them that she knows and is pretty self sufficient in this by now. I then told them that peanuts were fine and a look of relief (and surprise) crossed the class. I think one mom was especially glad because her child seems to love peanut butter for lunch. But, ya know what, she was thoughtful enough to ask if she shouldn’t send it in. I think she was happy it was fine with me, but nonetheless, she asked.

My husband and I were talking on the way home, surprised people didn’t know what tree nuts are, the difference between them and peanuts, all of that. Then we laughed at ourselves and remembered before all of this, we had no idea either. So it just goes to show that a little education is a good thing, and I was glad to pass along what I know to help out my daughter and answer any questions others have.

On another note, my younger daughter has a child with a nut allergy in her class for the first time. I’m not sure if it’s peanuts, tree nuts or both. Because my younger one is so used to the tree nut avoidance in our house, she asked me not to send in anything with nuts. And ironically enough, she loves them! We do allow almonds in our house because those don’t effect my daughter, and the younger one loves them for snack, as well as peanut butter. I was proud of her when she asked not to bring those things anymore, she’s only seven but knows to be considerate to someone else’s needs.

One comment

  1. I have heard that inhaled peanuts can be deadly. So a clean table would not totally solve the problem. I sympathize with parents of these allergic kids but you cannot expect a peanut butter free lunchroom. Perhaps they need a separate lunchroom. If it is so dangerous one cannot worry about socialization.

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