The sweet and salty salvation of picky eaters across the lunchroom has become public enemy number one to many children. The tub of peanut butter that taught me the meaning of “industrial size,” is no longer relevant in many schools.
Peanut butter was a popular alternative for children who preferred not to partake in what the school chef had prepared. That industrial-sized peanut butter tub has become a thing of the past, due to the notable increase in children suffering peanut allergies.
The risk of a child experiencing a fatal allergic reaction at school poses a heavy responsibility on the faculty. Schools have taken great measures in preventing allergic reactions among the students. Aside from removing the peanut butter from lunch tables, frequent reminders are sent to the parents outlining the rules about the snacks they send with their children; these rules are also in the handbook distributed at the start of the school year.
Rabbi Schapiro, administrator at Bais Yaakov of Boro Park, acknowledges the growing concern regarding peanut allergies. The school serves “something like peanut butter,” Rabbi Schapiro explains. “It’s called soy butter. This way, the girls who don’t like the lunch have another option that provides them with the nutrients that they’ll need to get through the day.”
Peanut butter has also been outlawed at Lev Bais Yaakov. “We haven’t served peanut butter in about four years,” explains Leah Zytman, the school’s principal. “First we tried having it in a separate room because the girls really liked it.” That method was unsuccessful because “we have a girl in our school with severe peanut allergies,” says Zytman. “She would have a reaction if she even sensed it in the air. Out of concern for her, and future students who might share that problem, we don’t allow any nut products in our school.” More specifically, “if there’s a girl in the class with an allergy, nobody in that class can bring foods that have been processed on shared equipment with nuts.”
Politz Day School in New Jersey employs a different technique. “We aren’t nut-free, we’re nut-smart,” stresses Rabbi Avraham Glustein, head of the school. “At the beginning of the school year, the kids have a training session with the school nurse so they can be smart about it.” He wouldn’t call his school “nut free,” because he feels it might “be used as a banner, but it isn’t really practiced in the classroom.”
Glustein explains that this is “a luxury we can afford,” due to the fact that the school is still growing and hasn’t confronted this problem yet. In preparation, however, he is researching an alternative protein source for the children.
Terri Mizrachi, preschool director at Magen David Yeshiva, explains that her school has also implemented a nut-free policy. She also maintains nurses on staff in case of an emergency, but has stressed to the parents that snacks containing nuts or that have been processed with nuts should not be sent to school with the child. “We check each student for allergies before they enter the school,” she says. “If the child has allergies, we notify all the child’s teachers and the nurse.”
And it’s not your imagination- allergic children are more common these days. “Food allergies in general are on the rise,” according to Dr. Norman I. Klein, head of allergy at Brookdale Hospital.
“There are two mutually contradictory theories that attempt to explain the situation,” Klein begins. “But nobody really knows.” One theory, he says, attributes the increase in allergies to the increase in chemicals in the air and in our food. The air pollution and exposure to the additives in our food makes the human system become hypersensitive.
The other theory is called the Hygiene Hypothesis. This is the idea that everything is too clean. “Everything is Purell-ed,” Klein explains, “and children get prescribed a lot of anti-biotics, and the body begins to build up immunity to normally friendly things, like milk, eggs, soy, fish, and nuts.”
Klein theorizes that the industrialization and the shared machinery of food production have led to younger exposure to these allergens.
Although there is no method proven to prevent a child from developing allergies, there are two suggestions that are “questionably helpful,” according to Klein. He recommends (a) breastfeeding babies and (b) delaying introduction of nuts. Nursing mothers with a history of peanut allergies should not consume peanut products while nursing. In addition, one should not feed peanuts to children under the age of two.
Although there is a slight possibility for children to outgrow these allergies, “parents should never test out on their own child to see if they have outgrown it, even in the minutest amounts,” Klein advises.
Allergic reactions can range from tingling in the lips to skin reactions, vomiting, diarrhea, and in extreme cases anaphylactic shock, which can lead to death. Epinephrine (EpiPen) is the most common medication used to treat anaphylactic shock. Klein notes that it is better to err on the side of caution when administering EpiPen. “There is a fear among parents and schools that EpiPen should only be used in extreme reactions,” Klein says. “Using it early in the reaction is really not a bad idea.”
The schools previously mentioned that they have an EpiPen in the nurse’s office at all times, and they are prepared to deal with an allergic reaction if they have to. They also pointed out that they have received positive feedback from the parents regarding the school rules. Although mothers might spend a few extra minutes reading ingredient lists in the grocery stores, they know that their time is well-spent knowing that their children’s classmates who suffer from allergies are safe.
Lisa Kiel’s daughter attends the Shulamith School for girls. “They started the school year with a no-snack policy, saying that the school will provide the snacks,” says Kiel. “The foods they’d provide would be allergen-free, obviously, but then when the other girls showed up with snack, Allison didn’t want to be left out, and it is kindergarten, so I started to buy her snacks.” Kiel, who consulted with Allison’s teacher before doing so, is cautious in selecting the proper snacks to abide by the no-nut policy.
“Peanut butter and jelly was Allison’s most-requested lunch when she was in day care, but she hasn’t asked for it since she’s been enjoying what the school provides.” Kiel would “rather be safe than sorry,” and is “glad the school is being responsible about it.”
Rabbi Glustein’s son, who is now 12, suffers from peanut allergies. His parents have devised an innovative method of preventing him from consuming the forbidden food. “When he was young, we told him that if a friend offers him snack with nuts, he can bring it home for an upgrade.” Rabbi Glustein would exchange the snack for something his son enjoys that does not contain nuts. This way, his son sees the reward for employing self-control and does not feel punished by his allergy.
Dealing with young children suffering from peanut allergies can be demanding. It seems our schools are up for the challenge and have utmost concern for the well-being of their students.
Editor’s Note: The first article originally appeared in monthly health section of The Jewish Press. Pick up The Jewish Press the third week of every month for our new health supplement. (In June, the health section will focus on fertility and pregnancy and in July, on the health of your heart.)
The second article makes its first appearance here, online.