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Back to School: Nut-Free Classrooms

By August 12, 2007

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If there is public suspicion about a "food allergy epidemic," it's at least in large part because of the increase in peanut and tree nut allergies and the concomitant rise of nut-free schools, daycares, and classrooms. There are, at least as far as I've seen, three major reasons people outside the allergy community give in public fora for being resistant to this sort of policy:

  1. Twenty (thirty, forty, or more) years ago, almost no one seemed to have anaphylactic nut allergies. Therefore, parents who claim their children have these allergies must be lying, or at least mistaken; it's implausible that there could suddenly be so many children with life-threatening allergies.
  2. The issue here is not safety; it's personal responsibility. Kids with peanut allergies won't live in a bubble once they get outside the school walls. Why should they be given an artificial sense of security while in school? They should be responsible for what goes into their own bodies.
  3. It's an undue burden for the larger school population to abstain from nut-containing products for the benefit of a small minority of the class.

The first is tough to refute because no one is positive what's responsible for the rise in food allergies; all we know for certain is that it's real. The second, however, represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of nut allergies and the nature of schooling. It's quite true that children with nut allergies should be --- and are --- responsible for what goes into their own bodies. However, in the "real world" they often have the option to stay clear from situations that are likely to put them in close proximity to their allergens (such as having lunch at the same table with someone eating nuts), and not consuming nuts isn't always going to keep kids with nut allergies from having reactions, depending on the severity of their allergies, if there is allergen protein in close proximity.

As for the third, not only are there a fairly wide variety of nut-free lunch staples available at any major supermarket, but this is also well within the legal accommodations usually offered to children with severe allergies under Federal law.

Here's a rough guide to nut-free classrooms, intended for parents whose children do not have nut allergies, covering why many schools choose to go nut-free to protect students, how to read labels to pick safe foods for lunches and snacks, and what foods are most likely to be safe. And for extra credit, here's a back-to-school interactive game about allergy and asthma triggers from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

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