A couple of weeks ago I wrote briefly about how parents can help non-allergic kids protect their allergic friends. I received almost entirely positive feedback: parents thanked me for my suggestions, and a few mentioned that they already are or will be making an effort to send peanut-free lunches to school with their kids, even though their kids don't attend peanut-free schools. Thank you!
A few days after I wrote that post, a friend of mine, Jane*, shared with me that the school where she works as a second-grade teacher opted to go completely peanut-free at the beginning of the current school year. Because 12 of the school's kindergarten through second grade students (based on overall enrollment, 12 students is actually well below the national average) carry Epi-pens for severe allergies to peanuts and/or tree nuts, the school banned all peanut products, as well as all non-peanut products manufactured on machines that also manufacture peanut products. (Non-peanut products manufactured in facilities that also manufacture peanut products are still acceptable.)
According to Jane, the school district sent a communication about the new policy to parents prior to the start of the school year, but it became clear to her just moments into Back-to-School Night that very few parents knew about the change.
Two parents completely flipped out. They argued with and even yelled at Jane (can you imagine this going down? During Meet-the-Teacher Night? I mean, COME ON people), who to her credit remained completely calm while she outlined the policy and what it meant for students.
But instead of allowing Jane to move on and talk about, I don't know, the ACADEMICS of second grade, one mother in particular dug in her heels. With arms crossed, through clenched teeth, and from her new position in the corner of the room (she was so angry that she'd gotten up out of her desk and essentially put herself in timeout in the corner), she started firing questions in Jane's direction.
"What if I just ignore the policy and send whatever I want?", she asked superiorly.
"Well," Jane replied, "if you choose to send foods that contain peanuts we will remove those items from your child's lunch."
"So you're going to starve them, then?", the mother shot back.
Jane explained to the mother than the school would provide these children with replacement items for them to eat.
Eventually some of the other parents grew frustrated with this mother and convinced her to sit down and listen to Jane talk about the upcoming school year, but the story doesn't end there...
A few days later, the school's security cameras caught that mother as she drove up to the school, took a bite out of a peanut butter sandwich, and then threw the sandwich at the door of the school. This woman was angry enough about her daughter not being allowed to bring peanut butter sandwiches in her lunchbox that she vandalized the school using the one product from which the school was trying to protect its students.
The mother accused the school of implementing the policy to protect themselves from a lawsuit. The school probably did implement the policy to protect themselves from a lawsuit. The mother claims the policy creates a difficult situation for her and her picky eater. The policy probably does create a difficult situation for her and her picky eater. The mother publicly stated (on the evening news, after she called the network and encouraged them to run a story on the "injustice" taking place at her daughter's school) that the policy caters to the needs of a few at the expense of many. The policy does cater to the needs of a few at the expense of many.
But at the end of the day, most elementary school students are not yet mature and/or responsible enough to serve as the exclusive advocate for their own health and safety. And they shouldn't have to. There's a reason children have parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers and principals in their lives. Our job as grown-ups is to protect our children until they're able to protect themselves.
Without the policy, that mother's child gets to eat what she wants at lunchtime. Without the policy, other mothers' children die.
(Insert the sound of me stepping up onto my soapbox...)
Get over it, lady. I have two children, one of whom is allergic to peanuts and one who is a picky eater. I'd give my right arm to have two picky eaters instead of having to worry about what my allergic child will come in contact with at school and whether or not it could kill him.
(And now I'm coming back down. Thank you for allowing me that brief moment to lose my cool.)
Late last week a little girl in Will's class celebrated her birthday with peanut-topped treats. During our after-school conversation about the treat, Will informed me that there are two kids in his class of 18 students who are allergic to peanuts.
Will is allergic to peanuts, and was once also allergic to dairy, eggs, and wheat. My darling niece, Lily, is allergic to peanuts and eggs. And just last week, my sweet, smiley, six-month-old nephew, Carter, was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts, dairy, eggs, and wheat - the exact same laundry list of foods that tormented Will years ago.
The increasingly dangerous and largely misunderstood problem of food allergies in children (and eventually adults) is getting worse, not better.
I'm not suggesting that all schools implement campus-wide bans on peanuts. I am suggesting that we continue the conversation about the very real dangers people with food allergies face, as well as the causes of and treatments for food allergies. Perhaps with improved and increased education, beneath the dialog we will begin to hear compassion and not anger in the voices of those who speak the loudest.
* Name has been changed.
Howdy! My name is Erin, and I am a wife, mother and writer living in College Station, TX. After eight years working in fundraising and volunteer management for the American Red Cross, my family moved across the country – from Michigan to Texas, which was quite the culture shock – and I decided a change in focus should accompany my change in geography. I now spend my “free time” (while preschool is in session and during naptime) sharing my experiences and cultivating conversations about parenting, cooking and baking, home and family organization, and philanthropy and volunteerism on my personal blog, my kid-focused blog and for the American Red Cross. And I’m loving every minute of it.