Here’s why banning peanuts in schools might not be the best answer

Opponents argue that food bans create a false sense of security and don’t keep kids safe. Is it time to put food-ban discussions back on the menu?

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Mary Young* knows all too well about the problems with food bans. Her five-year-old son, Noah, has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts. He was accidentally exposed twice in his supposedly peanut-free daycare, once when he was three and again when he was four. “It started as hives and then got worse and worse,” recalls Young. “We ended up at the ER.”

Peanut and tree nut bans are common in daycare facilities and elementary schools in Canada as a solution to protect students with severe, sometimes life-threatening, anaphylactic allergies. However, new research from the University of Alberta argues that it’s time to talk about the best way to respond to allergies in schools. In some cases, that could mean putting peanuts back on the menu.

Clearly, kids with anaphylactic allergies need to be accommodated at school so that they can be safe, and it’s up to the school to determine how it’s best to do that. In fact, schools are legally required to do so because an anaphylactic allergy is considered a disability under both the federal Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and provincial human rights law, writes University of Alberta law professor Eric M. Adams in a paper he co-authored earlier this year. However, Adams and his co-authors Blake Murdoch and Timothy Caulfield say that blanket bans do not appear to be legally required and it might be time to look for other solutions. “It may have seemed, to many schools, that having banned the substance, they were now done with this issue, and everyone could move on,” says Adams in an interview. “I think what the findings of our paper are suggesting is that bans may be worth revisiting.”

Here’s why: When Adams and his colleagues looked at the best scientific studies on the effectiveness of allergen bans, they found that bans didn’t reduce accidental exposure. A Canadian study published in 2015 tracked 1,411 children across the country with peanut allergies over a 10-year period and found 567 incidents of accidental exposure during that time. Somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t seem to matter whether schools and daycare facilities in the study had peanut bans in place. Rates of accidental exposure were nearly the same in both peanut-free and peanut-allowing environments. The researchers speculate that “peanut-free policies may create a false sense of security” where “children who are allergic may believe that it is safe to share foods.”

Dealing with allergies

In Canada, two out of every 100 kids have peanut allergies, and six to eight percent of kids under age three are thought to have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Canada. When that allergy is anaphylactic, ingesting even a small amount of the allergen orally or rubbing it into the nose or eyes can cause hives, rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, breathing difficulties, heart problems and even death.

Noah experiences many of these symptoms when he comes in contact with peanuts. He started kindergarten and a new out-of-school care program this year, and his mom looked for a peanut-free school. “It was part of my decision-making,” says Young. “I don’t have peanut butter in my home, so I wanted the same thing in the school. Sending him to a school that allows peanuts would be scary.”

Still, Young is realistic about just how far allergen bans can go to protect kids. “There will always be a risk,” she says. “I don’t think it keeps him 100 percent safe, but I think it raises awareness around the allergy.”

The awareness is there, says Adams. Since his paper was published, Adams has been a guest on call-in radio shows about how to deal with allergies in classrooms. He has been pleasantly surprised. “One thing that has really impressed me is how thoughtful those discussions are,” he says. “The bad old days of not caring about people who suffer from allergies are in the past,” he says.

But talking about lunchbox restrictions doesn’t always go so well. An Ontario mom recently started a petition that calls for the return of peanuts to schools in the Waterloo region. She argues that kids are allergic to all kinds of things, not just nuts. “I am a single mom, with three kids under six, being told that my children do not have a right to attend public school because I pack nuts in their lunches,” she writes. Supporters call food bans “unfair” and say they have “gone too far.” Opponents have called the mom “selfish,” “ignorant” and worse for allegedly risking the safety of kids with allergies.

Finding what works

Even schools with restrictions realize their inherent flaws. Many schools across the country use the terms “nut aware” and “allergy aware,” rather than saying “nut-free.” Edmonton Public Schools, for example, describe some of its schools as “nut aware,” meaning that students are asked not to bring peanuts and tree nuts, with the realization that contamination is possible. “Due to food-processing practices, it’s impractical to eliminate nuts and nut products entirely,” says Megan Normandeau, a spokesperson for Edmonton Public Schools.

Some schools do allow peanuts and tree nuts. In the Foothills School Division, south of Calgary, “The default is no ban,” says spokesperson Candace Denison. Staff and families create a custom plan, based on the needs of each student with an allergy.

Lindsay Knight, a mom of two in High River, Alberta, has a son in grade one in the Foothills School Division. She packs a peanut butter sandwich in his lunchbox at least once a week. “If I am in a pinch and need a quick lunch, he gets peanut butter and jam,” says Knight.

Custom allergy plans in each classroom, where kids eat all of their lunches and snacks, mean that Knight’s son can bring peanuts and nuts this year. However, the rules could change next year if there is a child with an allergy and parents and staff decide that a particular food should be restricted. “For some picky kids, peanut butter is all they’ll eat,” explains Knight. “If there is someone in the class with an allergy, you don’t want to put anyone in danger, but there is some ability to still allow peanuts.”

At the Toronto District School Board, all schools are peanut-free, but the board also says that it can’t “ensure an allergen-free school environment.” On the other end of the spectrum, the Commission scolaire de Montréal, Quebec’s largest school board, made headlines last year for allowing students to bring peanuts, tree nuts and all other foods without restrictions. “Clearing all traces of allergens from student lunches is impossible,” says board spokesperson Alain Perron. Instead, he says, staff gets training about allergies, and students with allergies are clearly identified.

It’s normal that schools across the country are trying different strategies to find what works best. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing allergies in schools,” says Beatrice Povolo, director of advocacy and media relations for Food Allergy Canada. While food restrictions may be part of the strategy, there are many other factors to consider, she says. Some include the age of the children, where children eat lunch, who is supervising, rules for desk washing and hand washing, and teacher education around allergies.

For Young, managing Noah’s peanut allergy at school means teaching him to take responsibility for his own health, even at age five. “The biggest thing is advocating for himself,” says Young. “He can’t share food, and he always has to ask. Find the adult in the room and tell them about your peanut allergy.”

*Name has been changed

Read more:
5 biggest school snack questions answered
When your child’s food allergy leads to anxiety

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