15 Sep 2014
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MomTalk Talks School Lunches: To Nut or Not to Nut

The Wakefield Public School District has one of the most restrictive "nut policies" in the state. No nut products of any kind - even in trace amounts - are allowed on school grounds.

Wakefield is not alone in its policy intended to keep children safe. Just last week in Viola, Arkansas, a child had his lunch confiscated because it was a PB&J, yummy to some, deadly to others. This week, the Mamas and Papa share their thoughts on the "nut ban" in Wakefield and some decent nut-free lunch alternatives.

Paul Simpson

 During lunch duty at Woodville last year, one of the volunteers approached me with a worried look on her face.  In a hushed voice, she said, “Um…I think a boy at that table has peanut butter.”  While we conferred, our third lunch duty comrade joined us, and together we hatched a game plan for ridding the cafeteria of the offending food.

A three-pronged attack placed us at the table in seconds.  I took up the flank position.  One mom asked the children at the table to stand up and take a step back while the other mom asked the boy what he was eating.  Taking advantage of the distraction, I swooped in, gathered the PB&J with a plastic bag, and tossed it in a barrel.  Someone grabbed a rag and thoroughly wiped down the table, and the kids sat down to finish eating.  We told the PB&J boy to get whatever he wanted from the school lunch line, on the house.

The extraction team rendezvoused at a predetermined checkpoint, and breathed a sigh of relief.  We recounted our expert handling of the Great Peanut Butter and Jelly Crisis of 2012, but our self-congratulatory discourse was cut short.  “Oh. My. God,” said one of the moms, blood draining from her face in horror.

“What?” I asked.

She pointed to a boy across the cafeteria.  “He has a twin brother!”

Plans and tactics went out the window.  Panic akin to that of the swimmers in Caddyshack’s Baby Ruth pool scene ensued. We raced to the table to find only a corner of crust remaining—but we still took it away.  The boy joined his brother in the lunch line for a replacement meal.

That’s right.  Not one, but two—count ‘em, two—contraband PB&J sandwiches confiscated and disposed of in one lunch.  Take that, Viola, Arkansas lunch duty volunteers! I was a little disappointed that our trio wasn’t presented with Medals of Valor at the end-of-year Celebration of Learning banquet for our heroism that day. In the end, though, when we take the oath, we lunch duty volunteers fend off the ever-present threat of nuts in the cafeteria with watchful eyes to safeguard the children, not for awards and glory.

As I’ve discussed, I am a big fan of rules.  I think they should be followed, but I also believe it is fine to question rules if you don’t agree with them.  The peanut butter ban is a sticky wicket indeed, and while I understand the spirit of the rule, I do question the wisdom of it.

While the “Nut Free School” signs and written policies sent home each year help enforce the ban, I think they create a false sense of security.  Most parents won’t knowingly send a peanut butter sandwich to school, but I doubt 100% of parents whose children don’t have a nut allergy read the labels on packaged snack foods 100% of the time.  I’m willing to bet you could find at least a dozen foods with traces of nuts at any one lunch period.  We live in a me, me, me society, and not everyone is going to take time out of their lives to guarantee completely that everything on their grocery list complies with the schools’ policy.

I have several friends whose kids have nut allergies, and I know they have every right to be concerned when their kids are in school.  I’m concerned for them, even with the schools’ current stance on not allowing nut products.  You can put any policy in place, but unless it is followed to the letter by everyone it’s designed to impact, it is merely words on a page.

I think a better solution is to designate a table for nut products.  Many school districts in the surrounding area use this approach. Kids with nut allergies can avoid the designated table, and those overseeing the cafeteria are likely more diligent about scouting foods because it is possible that a child with a nut allergy could be exposed if a classmate doesn’t sit at the designated table. If a confiscated PB&J in Arkansas makes the AP wire, I’m sure we’d hear about incidents of kids with nut allergies being rushed to the hospital in bordering towns if allowing a peanut butter table created a major hazard.

My opinion on the schools’ nut policy would absolutely differ if I had a child with nut allergies.  I’d be pushing for sophisticated nut-detectors or ask for a separate cafeteria.  It’s not a challenge with which I’d like to be faced.  Although I have an opinion on it, until the powers-that-be change the policy on nut products in the schools, I will vigilantly do my part to make sure no such foods find their way from my kitchen to the cafeteria on my watch.

Melissa Schools
The men of my household went through two large jars of Skippy Peanut Butter in the past ten days. They are of that ilk which eats peanut butter off a spoon, right from the jar. I love peanut butter with jelly or with bananas or apples or Fluff, but the thought of eating it by itself off the spoon makes me want to gag. (*gags*)

Three of my sons in particular eat peanut butter much in the same way another kid might eat Goldfish crackers or pretzels. It is their go-to snack of choice. Those three sons also happen to be the ones who are gluten-intolerant. It is a true staple of their diet. Since I already have to be careful about avoiding foods that contain gluten for them, it may be tempting to get harrumphy about their school’s strict no-nuts policy. We have to bring gluten-free pizza and cake to pizza and cake birthday parties. There is rarely anything they can eat at public social events, school events included. Thank goodness for the occasional fruit salad! We have some super-sweet friends who go out of their way to have gluten free options on hand when we visit, but overall we bring food or supplementary food with us to any food-serving event to be sure our kids have stuff to eat. We also do not expect others to provide us with gluten free options, though any attempts to accommodate us are truly appreciated.

Despite the fact that my kids’ particular food intolerance does not merit any special policy or accommodation, I fully support the school’s strict nut-free policy. My kids only get sick if they ingest gluten-containing food, or, in the rare occasion that I am baking with regular flour, are around the mixer which always seems to throw flour around before settling down. They can be around gluten-containing food and even play with play dough without incident. They do not have to take any medication to remain healthy or to keep their food intolerance at bay. Unlike the case with nut allergies, they are in zero danger of anaphylaxis or death from exposure to gluten.

I think the arguments against a nut-free policy which complain that those with nut allergies will “have to be in the world around nuts eventually,” are silly. We are talking about children who most certainly will have been drilled about being careful to avoid nuts. It’s not like the parents of those with nut allergies are just trying to be lazy and make the school do their jobs. These kids attend school for the same reason as other kids: to get an education. Why make life hard for them by leaving them to fend for themselves in the lunch room or by relegating them to the exile of a nut-free table? Why put pressure on parent volunteers to be food inspectors or give teachers yet another responsibility that doesn’t relate to teaching?

Is it inconvenient to avoid peanut butter for a no-brainer lunch sandwich? Yes. Do I want to whine about it and look like a selfish, insensitive jerk and avoid an opportunity to teach my kids about compassion for the struggles of others? Nope!

Even if the chance for anaphylaxis or death is fairly small, I don’t see the point of taking that chance. The chance that a kid will die from lack of nuts during that small six hour window of time is zero percent.

There are plenty of great websites dedicated to giving people nut-free lunch ideas. Google is your friend here. I think the real sticking points are the fact that parents against the nut-free policy don’t want to put in the time and effort to come up with nut-free ideas and that their child’s eating habits are ridiculously narrow. Yeah, I said it. Narrow. Don’t cater to picky eaters. Talk about a group of people who will have to face the real world eventually. The world hates picky eaters!

Tasha Schlake Festel

I know I’m not always a beacon of positive energy when it comes to the whole parenting thing. I do a whole lotta whining about my kids. But, let me say this: my kids rock when it comes to eating. As a result, we’ve never really been a big PB&J/mac-n-cheese/chicken nuggets kind of family. From the time they could eat solid foods, my kids have eaten whatever I eat, including Chinese, Indian, sushi, Mexican, you name it.

So when it comes to packing lunches and snacks, the nut restrictions haven’t ever been a big issue. Sure, it’s a little inconvenient on those lazy or crazy days when I wish I could throw some nutty trail mix into their snack bags or grab a pack of peanut butter crackers, but I get the intent of the rule. Peanuts can kill people, and I’d hate my child’s innocent indulgence to harm another child.

I’m a big fan of leftovers (mostly because I don’t really enjoy cooking) so my children often have for lunch whatever my husband (the much better chef) made for us the night before. However, when I am feeling uninspired – or I’m out of leftovers – I resort to the old PB&J sandwich. But I use sunflower butter instead of peanut butter. A wise friend of mine turned me on to this and I’ve never looked back. In fact, I don’t even have peanut butter in the house anymore. (What’s the point? I’m afraid to let me kids leave the house with it!) The sunflower butter I get is from Trader Joe’s and it’s awesome. If you didn’t know it wasn’t peanut butter, you’d never know it wasn’t peanut butter! I use it in sandwiches, as a dip for sliced apples, with crackers, etc. It’s a fantastic substitute. Yum!

The bad part about sunflower butter is that it looks exactly like peanut butter. So much so, that I was worried that the lunch moms would bust out the haz mat suits and forcibly remove it from my child’s hungry little hands. When I first started packing it two years ago for my now 3rd grade daughter, I used to include a note explaining that it was not, in fact, peanut butter. She is a rule follower. She was really nervous that she’d get in trouble and that no one would believe her that it was a “safe” sandwich. The note eased her stress level. As the years passed, I got out of the habit of sending the note because I know many of the lunch moms and my daughter was confident enough to defend her sandwich. Unfortunately, the first time I packed an SB&J sandwich for my 1st grader earlier this week, he was bombarded with accusations from his classmates. He was so upset – and worried that his flaky mom messed up and packed peanut butter – that he didn’t eat his sandwich that day. Deep down he knew it was OK, but he wasn’t willing to take the chance.

Bummer. Good intentions gone bad. Next time I will pack a note with his sandwich.


Regina Martine
I hate the nut policy. Hate it. Almost every morning I bitch and moan about how much easier it would be if I could just toss a PBJ in my kids’ lunchboxes and be done with it. Packing lunches that are both nutritious and will actually be eaten is pretty tricky in this house, and nuts would solve a lot of problems. My younger daughter hates all sandwiches except peanut butter and honey. She won’t eat sunbutter. She won’t eat cheese unless it’s right out of the fridge. Once it’s been in a lunchbox it is rendered inedible. Her lunches are usually a mishmash of not-so-nutritious granola bars, yogurt, pretzels, and fruit. My older daughter has been a vegetarian for 4 years, and although she is a much more adventurous eater than her sister, she is not too keen on taking “weird’ things to school.

My kids don’t have any food allergies, but they have lots of friends who are allergic to all kinds of things from milk to wheat to shellfish. None of these items are banned from school. On the other hand, I feel for the kids who have to live with a potentially life threatening allergy, but do these rules go too far? Is it the school’s responsibility to protect the kid, or the kid’s responsibility to protect himself? The rest of the world is not nut-free. A child with allergies that severe is in danger anywhere he goes and needs to know how to keep himself safe. For most kids, food allergies are not a matter of life and death. Perhaps, rather than a district-wide super-strict anti-nut policy, each school could adjust their policy for the needs of the current students.

If a child has a severe allergy, perhaps their classroom could be nut free, or certain tables in the lunchroom could be designated as “no nuts.” Also – why is it all nuts and not just peanuts? I can see peanut butter getting all over little hands and lunch tables, but what about almonds? Granola bars with nuts? Trail mix? Nutella? If a kid brings any one of these foods into the school it will be confiscated and and the kid and everything he touched will be disinfected Karen Silkwood-style. Seems a little extreme to me.

When my daughter was in preschool, her class started the year with a pretty strict allergy policy. The school provided snacks, but the kids could bring in treats to share for special occasions. The teacher provided a list of “approved” treats, but once the teachers knew who was allergic to what, they relaxed the policy and kids could bring in just about anything.

I feel like the Wakefield schools are too cautious about food overall. Kids can’t share food, and last year I had to sign a permission slip to so my daughter could observe (but not eat or even touch) a piece of candy. Our kids live in a world full of food choices and kids need to be able to make decisions about what they can and can’t eat.


It's Your Turn!
Read about the incident in Viola, Arkansas and let us know if you've seen it here in Wakefield. What do you think of the nut-free school? What do pack as alternatives?

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