Pickets for Peanuts?

in Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut
Published: March 25, 2011

On March 9, 2011, parents of children enrolled at Edgewater Public School near Daytona Beach, Florida, called the media and staged a protest, angry that an allergy-management plan implemented by the school board to keep a 6-year-old peanut-allergic girl safe could take away from their children’s learning time – and that the child should stay home instead.

The events have galvanized the allergic community and underscore the importance of educating those who do not understand the challenges of daily living with a food allergy.

The new safety procedures

According to news reports, the allergy-management plan includes the following policies and procedure:

  • Students must wash their hands at least twice a day (before entering the classroom in the morning and after lunch).
  • Teachers must regularly wipe down desks.
  • Peanut-free zones throughout the school campus and the cafeteria
  • Snacks banned from the classroom; classroom parties must not include treats.
  • Students were originally required to rinse out their mouths before entering the classroom, but this rule has reportedly been removed from the allergy-management plan; students now must wipe their faces with a wet cloth.

Allergy-management plans like this one are poised to become the norm. Earlier this year, President Obama signed the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act (FAAMA), which calls for voluntary national guidelines to help schools manage students with food allergies.

In the past decade alone, the prevalence of food allergy, once an uncommon condition, has skyrocketed. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimates that about 12 million Americans – 4 percent of the population – now contend with the disease. The Canadian rate of food allergy is estimated to be comparable. Peanut allergy alone has doubled in young American kids.

The backlash

Some parents of students enrolled at the elementary school argue that:

  • The time it will take to implement the plan – hand-washing and desk-wiping, for example – will take away valuable learning time.
  • The peanut-allergic student is receiving special treatment that their children don’t receive.

Parents are also up in arms about a peanut-sniffing dog that was brought into the school over spring break.

“You can’t take peanut butter and jelly – or any right – away from my child,” yelled one angry protester to the mother of another peanut-allergic child at the school. “Keep your child at home!”

Along with the protest, which has been covered by local and international media, the parents have been handing out flyers to the community.

What the school board says

The school board argues that:

  • Under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the district is legally obliged to accommodate the student’s medical needs.
  • The policies put in place, such as regular hand washing, are good hygienic practices that need not be overly time-consuming.
  • The policy regarding classroom parties being free of treats or snacks was a decision made by teachers for general health and wellness reasons.
  • The peanut-sniffing dog, according to one report, was brought in to comply with the student’s ADA medical plan, which called for a dog to search the school. Schools are required to comply with such plans.

The allergy community’s response

Not surprisingly, the allergy community has been watching the situation closely.

On March 23, FAAN and the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI) released a joint statement that highlighted the need for increased education about the challenges of living with a food allergy. The organizations also expressed concern about the psychological impact of the protests on the first grader: “Studies have shown that living with a life-threatening food allergy can have a psychological impact, and a public display in this manner may have a detrimental effect on children with food allergies.”

Parents of children with food allergies are also expressing their views on the Florida events. “Here we sit, on a fence, between a rock and a hard place, because of unawareness and ignorance,” says a member of the Allergic Living Forum. “How much noise to make to keep our kids safe is such a hard question.”

“The [protesting] parents definitely took it too far,” says another Forum member. “If their concerns weren’t being addressed, they themselves could have contacted FAAN to see if they could recommend a compromise. Picketing and protesting one child is insane.”

The Allergic Living Facebook page has also received a lot of feedback on the issue. “It interests me that the main complaint from protesting parents is that hand and mouth washing takes away from education time,” says one of Allergic Living’s fans. “Handwashing is a normal and accepted way of cleaning yourself after eating, so I am baffled as to why parents would not want thier kids to learn the importance of that. Further, kids will learn about community support for the safely and wellbeing of people who live, play, learn and eat within their community.”

As well, members of the community are showing support on the Facebook page here for the family of the child who is at the middle of this allergy battle.

Posted March 28, 2011