Back-to-School with Peanuts

I’ve consulted with the National Peanut Board and the Peanut Institute several times over the past decade. It is a natural partnership for several reasons: (1) I love peanuts and peanut butter; (2) My two children might not have grown into strong, healthy adults without peanut butter; and (3) Both organizations base all of their materials and recommendations on the most recent science. And now I have a fourth reason: My grandson Milo, now almost sixteen months old is getting to explore the wide world of delicious, nutritious foods – and I want to make certain that he experiences new foods safely and joyfully.

The great news for new parents is that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has updated guidelines for infants at different risk levels for developing of peanut allergies. The 2017 Addendum Guidelines, based on a landmark study, are designed for use by healthcare providers and parents. They suggest that the early introduction of peanut-containing foods (around four to six months of age) can lead to a major reduction in the development of peanut allergies. I’m grateful that my grandson Milo has happily been enjoying peanut butter “puffs” for over eight months.

I’m always disappointed when I learn that a school district has banned peanuts, peanut butter and peanut-containing foods and claims to be “peanut-free.” While I understand any parent’s desire to keep their children safe, I support realistic, effective policies that prevent peanut-allergic reactions and allow the 98 percent of children without these allergies to enjoy all delicious, nutritious, affordable food options. In my professional opinion, students with and without allergies are best served by policies that are comprehensive and evidence-based. Rather than complete bans – which can be unenforceable – I favor an “allergen aware” approach to serving potentially problematic foods.

The really important reason to allow peanuts and peanut butter in schools is their natural versatility in creating nutritious dishes that students love to eat for school breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper. The recipes at PeanutsinSchools.org are excellent examples of items that appeal to kids – and help school nutrition pros plan meals that meet nutrition standards without breaking their budgets. Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Banana Smoothies, Peanut Butter Vanilla Yogurt Dip and African Peanut Stew (a tasty, creamy option for vegetarian and vegan customers) are perfect for back-to-school menu innovations. These recipes, created by HealthySchoolRecipes.com, come complete with crediting information and nutrition details.

So what can a school district do? Start a science-based discussion about food allergies that includes all interested parties – parents, students, teachers, and administrators as well as school nurses, medical advisors, and, of course, school nutrition staff. A school wellness committee or council can be an effective place to begin the conversation – about existing policies or about possible changes.

Here are five steps that make sense for all students – and are based on the latest evidence:

  1. Use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs as a template for policies. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), the National Association of School Nurses and other groups collaborated with the CDC to develop the best guidelines possible. 
  2. Educate. Educate. Educate. Keeping food-allergic students safe at school is a shared responsibility among all adults who provide care, services or oversight. This means that bus drivers, foodservice staff, teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and after school personnel should all know the signs of an allergic reactions and what to do for an individual child.
  3. Be prepared in the event of a reaction. Even with good policies and careful procedures, reactions can and do happen. For any food allergy, children need an emergency anaphylaxis plan, access to necessary medications, and adults who know how to respond. Friends and classmates can also be taught to recognize the signs of a reaction to allergenic foods.
  4. Consider whether allergen safe tables are a good option for your school. These tables have been shown to reduce epinephrine use in a 2017 study. I often eat at allergen-free tables when visiting school cafeterias – and have been impressed with the level of students’ knowledge and the caring they show for their friends. (Bartnikas L., H. M. 2017, Impact of school peanut-free policies on epinephrine administration. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 467-473)
  5. Let parents and caretakers know that your school nutrition program takes all food allergies seriously. Meet with concerned families as appropriate and share your procedures for reviewing new products, labeling menu items with potential allergens, and supporting safe celebrations. Need more facts about peanut allergies? Find everything you need at Managing Peanut Allergies.

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