So last week my friend Karen wrote a blog about the controversy surrounding schools banning nuts in order to protect kids who have severe nut allergies. Karen’s posts are always guaranteed to spring lively commentary, and this was no different. The topic caught my attention, since I am the parent of a child with life threatening allergies to nuts and sesame.
Curiously, I scrolled through the comments. Several major themes emerged, and I want to address them, as a parent who can empathize with both sides but who ultimately supports removing nuts when necessary.
Theme #1: Why can’t parents of nut allergy kids just teach those kids to avoid eating nuts and to never taste foods that others bring to school? Kids need to advocate for themselves, and they can’t expect the rest of the world to cater to them.
My six-year-old daughter is allergic to nuts and sesame. Severe enough that the doctor insisted she needs to keep two Epi-Pens at school, because if she accidentally ate nuts or sesame, one Epi-Pen might not be enough to keep her alive until an ambulance could get to her. My daughter won’t go near nuts or hummus. She doesn’t taste food that others bring. She knows the signs of anaphylaxis. She had her first anaphylactic reaction in a doctor's office.
Last year, there was a day when she came home sobbing because the mother of a little boy brought a cake in for his birthday, but the cake had nuts and she couldn’t eat it. (The mother doesn’t speak English and hadn’t realized that there was a nut allergy in the class). My little one really really wanted just to take a lick of the chocolate frosting, but she knew not to.
Despite her care and caution, she finds herself in dangerous situations. Most recently, just a few weeks ago, my cousin was visiting and picked my daughter up for a cuddle. Within minutes, she was covered with hives. She touched her eye, and her eye started swelling. Why? My cousin had eaten walnut pancakes for breakfast, and the teensy bit of residual walnut oil on his hands was enough to start a reaction when he touched her skin.
Last year, there was a day when the nurse called me from her school. My then-kindergartener had apparently sat on a seat, and there was a tiny smudge of peanut butter on it that she hadn’t seen. Her reaction was instant; it started with a rash and kept getting worse. It took over three weeks of steroids before the bleeding welts on her legs healed. This year, her entire classroom remains nut-free at all times.
So, if you think that these kids should simply learn to advocate for themselves, you may not realize how nut allergies involve more than just ingesting nuts. Although my daughter's nut allergy is bad enough to cause skin problems when she touches nut oils, it is fortunately not so severe as to cause anaphylaxis unless she ingests nuts. If simply touching nuts made her stop breathing, we would face difficult decisions about homeschooling (both my husband and I work, so this would be very tough).
Theme #2: Why do the needs of allergy kids trump the needs of kids with other feeding issues? What if a kid has severe sensory processing issues and refuses to eat anything but peanut butter and will need a feeding tube otherwise? Why is your kid’s allergy more important than my kid’s issue?
I have unbelievable empathy for this scenario. Because, you see, my same little one with the nut allergy has sensory processing disorder. And one of the ways it manifests most severely is around eating. She has been labeled failure to thrive; she has spent years in various occupational and feeding therapies. She was on an 80% liquid diet until age three, consisting of a specially prescribed formula, because there were no foods she would eat. She had an endoscopy at 16 months to rule out other problems, because her weight was so low. Even now, at age six-and-a-half, she only weighs 35 lbs.
So, for those people whose kids only want to eat one food, I feel your pain. Those who simply dismiss these kids as picky eaters just don’t get it. Honestly, if my girl didn’t have a peanut allergy, I would have pushed peanuts as her go-to food. Nuts are healthy, easy to transport, and filling. I get it.
If there were a kid in my daughter’s class who would only only only eat nuts, I would probably ask the school to put our two kids into different classes -- one nut-free and one nut-permitting -- so that each of their needs could be met. But holding all else equal, a nut-eating child won’t perish if unable to eat nuts for a 7-hour chunk of time. A nut-allergy kid’s need to survive is a 24-hour problem.
Theme #3: Eliminating foods is a slippery slope. There are tons of allergies out there. Are schools going to ban nuts, and then dairy, and then wheat, and eventually, there will be nothing left? Shouldn’t we be researching the environment to figure out why these allergies are occurring instead of trying to remove the allergens?
This is definitely troublesome. And it is a slippery slope. I don’t have a good answer to this, and I think it is a very valid question. It makes me think back to my pregnancy. I avoided soft cheeses and deli meats, for fear of listeriosis. I avoided tuna, for fear of methymercury poisoning. So what did I eat? Tons of peanut butter and hummus. One of our doctors thinks that I overexposed my daughter to nuts and sesame tahini during pregnancy, and this actually caused her allergies. In trying to protect her from some foods, I may have damaged her with others. How’s that for mommy guilt?
Ultimately, I believe schools need to evaluate on a school-by-school, student-by-student basis, providing compassion and care for the needs of all students. My daughter’s school is not nut-free, but her classroom is, and she eats at a nut-free table at lunch, and we take every precaution. She has medications at school, and in this way, we are preparing her as best we can for dealing with the real world, where she will not live in a bubble. I’m okay with this. But there are kids whose allergies are even more severe than my daughter’s, and those parents need to take even more rigorous steps to protect their kids.
There are no perfect outcomes. There are only discussions and conversations and decisions ultimately that should be made with the best interest of all students in mind. Thank you for reading and considering my viewpoint!
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.
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