Food has been an integral part of the culture of our school whether it is to celebrate special events or as a part of our curriculum. Additionally, food has played a role in setting a comfortable and inviting tone in a classroom. While well intentioned, it is increasingly clear that not everyone benefits from such an environment and that we may be causing harm to any one of the 41 students and 11 staff members who have severe and life-threatening food allergies. Since the start of the 2011-12 school this year, there have been three instances where a student has had to be taken to the emergency room by ambulance because of exposure to peanuts.
The most prominent allergy is to peanuts, peanut by-products, and nuts in general. Twenty nine of the 41 students have a life threatening peanut allergy. Four out of the 11 staff members have a life threatening peanut allergy. It is vitally important to note that the precautions needed to be taken extend beyond simply not serving peanuts or other specific foods in the cafeteria or school store. Also, allergic reactions are not just caused by eating but by simple exposure. The residue from peanuts is left on furniture and can travel throughout the building. One of our students, for instance, had a serious reaction last week due to residue left on a desk from someone eating a peanut butter sandwich the block before she entered that classroom.
These are the steps the school has taken to ensure as much as possible that students are not exposed to peanuts:
1. We do not sell peanuts or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the cafeteria.
2. There is a clip board listing ingredients of all food products available for review at each food station so that anyone can see what is being served in the food.
3. Peanut free posters have gone up in every classroom.
4. The menus in the cooking classes will no longer use nuts or peanuts.
5. Food can no longer be left in the Attendance Office or Main Office because it is impossible to police which foods have an ingredient that will trigger a reaction.
To further protect these students it is important that students not be allowed to eat in classrooms as a regular practice. This is a huge culture shift but one I, and the nurse, believe is the responsible thing to do. For special occasions – especially as we head into the holiday season – teachers should check with the school nurse or the food services director Tess Sousa regarding what foods may be brought in. There have been students taken out by ambulance in past years stemming from exposure to certain foods after a holiday party. Contacting Mrs. Rizza or Mrs. Sousa should apply to bake sales and fundraisers involving food as well. While it is fair to say that students cannot expect to have a totally safe environment in the cafeteria since many students bring their lunch, it is fair that they should expect to be able to go into any room outside of the cafeteria with a reasonable expectation that they will be safe.
There are many more students coming to the high school with severe allergies. This is not merely a high school issue but a district issue. Training our minds to regularly consider the food we eat at school will take time. All of our students who suffer from severe or life threatening allergies are very diligent about following certain protocols and taking necessary precautions to protect themselves. They should not have to do this all by themselves and require our assistance.
Please feel free to contact School Nurse Michelle Rizza, or the Food Services Director Tess Sousa if you have any questions or concerns. We all appreciate your understanding and support around this issue.