Remember Lynne Glover, the mother whose daughter Elodie has such severe food allergies that being in school was a threat to her life? Ms. Glover brought her daughter's case to the human rights tribunal, saying the school had to accommodate Elodie's many food allergies, and the family has seemingly won their battle. Holy Name of Jesus school in Hamilton, Ontario, has now banned eggs, dairy, peanuts, and tree nuts in Elodie's classroom to help protect her (and another allergic student). It is not a school-wide ban, however.
The comments on the article I first read were absolutely horrendous. The idea that there are people out there suggesting that maybe kids with food allergies are meant to die is disgusting. It's unacceptable to put one child's preferences over another's life. I've heard all these comments and can tell you that they never come from people with an ounce of decency. I have no time to debate these kinds of ignorant comments, but I do want to address the idea of food bans in schools.
Are food bans effective long-term?
Are food bans reasonable for other kids?
Are there other ways we can help protect allergic students?
I've had this discussion a million times if I've had it once, and despite everyone thinking they've got the easiest solution, it's never easy. What's easy is casting judgment from a place where these issues are not a problem. If you have no idea what it's like to fear for your child's life over an egg salad sandwich being present, you have no idea how best to manage these things.
Our school board has banned Wow Butter, a soy-based peanut butter replacement. Want to know why? Because some parents were sending in actual peanut butter and lying, saying it was Wow Butter, risking the lives of kids. So instead of policing lunches, the board decided to restrict similar products to avoid the confusion and potentially deadly outcome.
In a perfect world, I think we'd focus more on effective cleaning practices to limit allergens, and help educate other people on the realities of food allergies. But as long as we have people suggesting that kids with food allergies deserve to die, it seems like food bans are the safest option, doesn't it? If we can't rely on other people's support and sympathy, we're not going to get anywhere trying to protect people with life-threatening food allergies.
Let's say we allowed peanuts and nuts back into our schools... (And let's also remember that the majority of schools in the U.S. have no such bans.) Nut oils are persistent, and aren't easy to remove. They end up all over surfaces, and things like hand sanitizer don't actually remove the proteins. They get on a child's hands, desk, chair, doorknobs, pencils, taps, toilet handle, shoes, clothes, face...you get the idea. And you know little kids—hands and fingers meet lips and tongues (and nostrils) quite often. For a kid with a severe peanut allergy, that contact is enough to set off an anaphylactic reaction, which can lead to death. Death. Are you with me? It can lead to a child dying because another one had to have pb&j. And the same is true for those with dairy and egg allergies—they too can die from ingesting these foods.
My kids' classrooms are supervised by grade seven and eight students, who I am sure have exactly no idea how to manage food allergies, how or when to administer emergency epinephrine, or how to instruct kids to keep clean. It just doesn't seem realistic to me to even expect that teachers are going to take on more responsibility for keeping kids safe from these foods, so bans seem like the easiest option.
But other parents dislike bans—isn't that the understatement of the year? Restricting their child's lunch options goes against their human rights! Why should one child's need dictate what the rest can eat? Why are these weak links in the human chain allowed in their schools? And those aren't even the worst comments. It's frustrating, I know. And it's unrealistic to expect the world to protect my son the way I wish it could, so I'm not sure food bans are the answer.
I think that for younger kids, classroom food bans are a pretty good idea in general. I've seen how often my son's kindergarten friends smear their food everywhere, and how often they're touching one another, and how infrequently they wash their hands properly. Kindergarteners are just germy in general, and while they're still learning to zip zippers and go pee before it's way too late, adding the responsibility of managing someone else's food allergies is too much for them. It's too much for most adults! And yes, I realize that schools are not the "real world," and I want my son to know that we need to exercise caution everywhere. Teaching him to advocate for himself, and speak up if he thinks he's having a reaction, and having him know what the steps are for using his epinephrine auto-injectors is key for us. We want him to be able to protect himself, because one day (high school!), there will be no food bans to help protect him.
Another alternative would be an allergy-safe lunchroom where kids of all ages with allergies could enjoy eating in a safe environment. I know many parents feel this singles out their allergic kid, but frankly, I'm ok with that. My son knows he's got allergies, and even at his young age, he'd choose safety first. But this would mean that wherever other kids are eating would still have to be well-cleaned before allergic kids came back to the rooms. This means we need to teach staff how to clean effectively to remove traces of allergens, and in schools where staff already feel stretched thin, I'm not sure how well that would be received.
I'll be honest with you, I'm really tired of this debate. On the one hand, I'm the parent of a child who can die from a trace amount of a food tons of other people love eating (myself included), and on the other, I'm a parent who struggles to pack a lunch that won't harm another kid. It's frustrating for everyone involved, I know. If a parent tells me they'd feel more comfortable if we avoid dairy and eggs in our lunches, I will do whatever it takes to make them feel like their child is safe.
I just don't feel like debating anymore.