How should schools handle peanut allergies?

My four-year-old son, J. is starting Kindergarten next year.  He has a peanut allergy and I have been anxious about how it will be handled at his elementary school.  Not only am I worried about his safety, given that other children who eat peanut butter at lunch could have peanut butter residue on their hands or face, I worry about my little boy sitting away from his friends at the peanut free table. Logically, I know that it is unrealistic to expect the entire student body to go “peanut free” given that there are only a handful of food allergies in the population.

However, I know what it is like to have to adapt to keep kids with food allergies safe.  Before my son was born, my older daughter loved peanut butter.  Her nursery school was peanut free, so I made her soy butter sandwiches, which she adapted to very quickly.  My husband and I still love peanut butter (and miss Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups), but sunflower butter is a nice substitute.

Recently, I’ve heard that a few local schools in Massachusetts are now serving sunflower butter in lieu of peanut butter.   I wish that our school would stop serving peanut butter and serve sunflower butter instead.  I also wish the kids who bring peanut butter to school would have to sit at a peanut-only table, an idea some schools have in place.

Peanut allergies are so prevalent that teachers and parents and especially kids are accommodating and careful.  However, in schools it can be logistically difficult (from a manpower to a time issue) to keep cafeteria tables clean and hands and faces washed.   That’s what worries me, especially when my son has had a few allergic reactions that could have stemmed from peanut butter residue.

Boston’s TV news magazine program, Chronicle, just did a small segment on the hot button issue of peanut butter in schools.  When asked why not go peanut free one superintendent said, “It gives a very poor message- when we have a nut free environment…that there is something wrong and that we have to be afraid vs. to be informed.”

It sounds like there is a good deal of variation in how schools handle peanut allergies from town to town just in my small area of Massachusetts. Just as our state has a law in place for restaurants to address food allergies, it seems that our schools should have consistent guidelines.

And although the superintendent’s quote made a lot of sense to me, but I am still very concerned that my son will be leaving his safe, peanut free zone at preschool, to a school where peanut butter is served in the cafeteria.  I plan to volunteer in the cafeteria before he starts school so that I get a feel for how the peanut allergic kids are handled and hope I will be reassured.

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