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Allergy Policy: When Balance is Elusive

Posted By Samantha Yaffe On 2011/11/21 @ 5:49 pm In Archives | 1 Comment

This month, Sam comes face to face with the dilemma of allergy safety and reasonable expectations at her son’s elementary school.

The other evening I’m at a school event with the kids. It’s movie night, so I’m towing a bag of treats, including some ketchup-flavored potato chips (my fave), gummies (theirs) and a few other pieces of choice junk. (What can I say? It’s movie night!)

Another mother I’ve known for years – a nutritionist, no less – notices my goodies and asks, “Can Lucas eat all that?”

“It’s not all for him,” I reply. “But yeah, it’s all safe for him, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” she says, now in an obviously peeved tone. “I sent some of those same snacks in my son’s lunch bag last week and they were sent home with a note saying ‘they’re unsafe for our allergic students’.”

Another mother overheard the conversation, and nutritionist mom was quick to repeat herself, only now in an even snarkier tone. “Next thing you know they’ll be telling us we can only send bread and butter, or actually, not even that,” she adds. “I hear you on that one,” the other mother responds (and I swear I could hear her eyes rolling).

“But that’s not at all the direction we’re going in,” I protest. I know this, because I advise the school on allergy-related issues – and I’m all about asking others for as little accommodation as necessary.

I’m well aware that my son Lucas (allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, egg, mustard and kiwi) has a much better chance of cracking his head on the pavement than he does reacting to a food he’s not eating that may contain a trace of nuts. I also believe that allergy parents must primarily educate their allergic kids and instill a no-sharing policy in them, above and beyond everyone else. I think it’s doubly important not to over-insulate our growing allergic kids and to use school as a training ground for life, within reason.

This is why our school’s allergy policy calls for support and awareness. “We don’t call for bans. We’re not hung up on ‘may contains’ and we’re definitely not only restricted to products that have a nut-free symbol on the packaging,” I explain to nutritionist mom, in the sweetest voice I can muster, despite the steam whistling out of my ears.

“Then why did they send my kid’s lunch home?” She’s clearly annoyed and was obviously humiliated by the wrist-slap.

Next page: Sam tries to figure out what went wrong …

(continued from previous page)

From what she explained, there would be no good reason for the snacks and the note to have been sent home to this mother, who is most definitely vigilant about her kids bringing safe foods to school (though strangely not so nutritious, given her profession. Just saying).

My inner bitch is rising. All my hard work to form what I thought was a strong, reasonable catch-bees-with-honey kind of policy, and this mother who’s been on side for years is turning on a dime. But I can’t really blame her. She takes care to ensure the safety of a few allergic kids ­– none of whom are even in her kids’ classes – then gets reprimanded with no real explanation.

I’m guessing there’s some confusion among the staff, which may be a result of changes at the school this year. There have been many, including a new principal, who is also new to being a principal and new to penning allergy policies. Although he’s been amazingly cooperative, I’m suspecting he may have missed a large point, and maybe went overboard in an effort to adhere to his interpretation of Sabrina’s Law (Ontario’s precedent-setting school allergy legislation).

What I know, and he may not, is that we still must tread lightly on the allergy issue, despite the law. We still have to appeal to the hearts of the non-allergics. In our efforts to keep our allergic students safe, we cannot make people feel that their rights are being trampled on or that their good intentions are for nothing.

Sure, I can’t help but dream of a day when bringing nuts to school is as crude (and eventually as illegal) as smoking in the playground. But for now, pushing the sensitivity and community responsibility card seems to make more sense. I think.

Turns out, new principal had no idea who sent the note and why, but he also wasn’t immediately clear on what upset me so much about the situation.

Meantime, we’ve put out some new FAQs and answers to help the school community better understand our policies, which are far less restrictive than some other schools, and may even be a bit compromising to the comfort level of some of our own allergy parents.

But who could argue against a policy that promotes sensitivity, vigilance, community and responsibility, while only asking others to refrain from sending foods that can cause life-threatening harm to our anaphylactic students?  That is, just the food that definitely contains – in our school’s case – peanuts and tree nuts. It’s so much more disarming and on target than saying: “No nuts and no food that may contain them,” (which is an exclusionary policy at best and one that would be nearly impossible to police any way).

Still, I’m partly second-guessing myself. In my efforts to help design an enlightened policy that aims to preclude allergy backlash, did we leave too much up for interpretation? Is restricting parents to only sending foods that are clearly labeled peanut- or nut-free – void of ‘may contains’ and the like – essential to our pursuit of consistent allergy safety at school? Is one way more set up for failure than the other?

Maybe I’ve lost my allergy edge, but with a no-sharing policy in effect coupled with years of setting an example for my now 9-year-old son, promoting a zero-tolerance approach still feels more like catching bees with a herd of blind elephants.

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