When eating can be a life-or-death decision

School districts have various policies about food allergies

A 13-year-old Chicago, Ill., student died in 2010 from an allergic reaction to peanuts after a Chinese restaurant cooked meals for a school party and apparently used peanut oil, after saying they would not.
In 2012, a 7-year-old girl in Chesterfield, Va., died at school after she shared a friend’s treat that may have contained peanuts.
In Tacoma, Wash., a 10-year-old went into full cardiac arrest in 2008 in her elementary school due to an unspecified food allergy.
These three school children are among the estimated 100 to 200 people who die each year after coming into contact with a food to which they are allergic.
It’s not just peanuts anymore. Between 10 and 15 million people in the United States have a food allergy, and almost 100,000 New Jersey children have food allergies.
In just five years, from 1997 to 2002, the number of children in New Jersey with peanut allergies has doubled.

“Nurses have an allergy footprint of the building.” – Hoboken Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson
While older youth and adults are aware of their own allergies, younger children need to be watched closely. Thus, over the past few years, some schools have stopped parents from bringing in homemade treats for birthdays, and other schools have strict no-nuts policies. But these policies don’t necessarily address other potentially deadly allergies, like dairy, soy, or gluten.
According to a Rutgers Cook College program, eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies: peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, cashews, coconuts, others), milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Some sufferers are also allergic to fruits and seeds, like sesame and mustard.
“People sometimes aren’t aware of how serious food allergies can be,” said Dr. Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, a nutrition researcher at Rutgers. “To them, it may seem like an inconvenience to not put peanut butter sandwiches in their children’s lunch, but there are many other nutritious choices – and leaving the peanut butter at home may save a classmate’s life.”
Hudson County’s schools – Hoboken, Bayonne, North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken, West New York — have adopted policies to keep those populations in their districts safe, following state guidelines recommended in 2007. But the policies differ by district.
In Weehawken, high school nurse Jeanine Roberts said she has had kids allergic to strawberries, kiwi, and pomegranate. “It really could be anything,” she said.
Officials in Hoboken and Union City said the most common allergies were to peanuts and other nuts. West New York school officials also reported soy, wheat, dairy, gluten, egg, and fish, including shrimp and shellfish, as offenders.

Cupcakes and happy birthday ices

Some districts prohibit parents from sending in cupcakes for the whole class or other homemade treats that might be dangerous to students with food allergies. West New York is one of them.
But others, like Union City, Weehawken, and North Bergen, say they have no such prohibition.
West New York still allows students’ birthdays to be recognized once each month, when they bring in fruit-based happy birthday ices.
“We don’t want to be a Grinch,” Food Services Sal Valenza said. “We wanted to have a way to celebrate.”
The Union City school district tries to limit items like cupcakes and cookies anyway because of the nutritional guidelines that it follows.
Bayonne has no overall ban of cupcakes and other such items, but leaves it to the discretion of each principal to decide for his/her own school.
In some districts, nuts are not allowed in cafeterias at all. In West New York, nuts are banned.
“We’re peanut-free, to begin with,” Valenza said.
Union City, Weehawken, Bayonne, and North Bergen don’t regulate nuts in the cafeteria.
Many school lunch providers keep their options nut-free, but don’t keep out other popular allergens, so students are forced to bring their own lunch.
In some districts, if a student comes in with ingredients that could make another student sick, they are separated from students with allergies. Union City does this if there’s contact between the two students. If the rule-breaking student is caught with the item, it is taken away.
In West New York and Bayonne, they separate students in all instances, sending the allergic student to the nut-free table.
In North Bergen, when they’re aware of a student with a food allergy, they separate them from students eating nuts and other allergens. And they don’t allow students with nut products to go to a peanut-free table.
“We must prevent exposing those with allergies to nuts,” North Bergen Schools Superintendent George Solter said. “This could be very serious, with even just the aroma possibly causing a reaction.”
“If we knew these two students were close, we’d just move one,” said Tom Jacobson, Bayonne’s director of nurses and health. “That’s just common sense.”

Individual health plans and EpiPens

There are two basic life-saving tools when it comes to students with food allergies, most education officials agreed.
One is an individual health plan for the allergic student. Union City and Bayonne require plans for those students. In Hoboken, West New York, and Weehawken, school nurses and cafeteria staff are told which students have allergies.
The other major tool in the treatment of a student with allergies is the use of the epinephrine autoinjector, or EpiPen. The EpiPen is a device which injects a measured dose of adrenaline to counteract the effect of anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that happens quickly and could result in death. Recently, students have been able to use a talking pen called an Auvi-Q.
Many school systems allow students’ EpiPens to be held by a school nurse or teacher, but some schools across the country have caused controversy by not wanting the responsibility.
Union City, Bayonne, Hoboken, and Weehawken are among the districts that allow the devices to be stored for each student with an allergy. Union City and Bayonne even have additional ones at hand. The schools reported mandatory annual EpiPen training for nurses, and some for other personnel.
Whenever EpiPens have to be used, additional emergency protocols are followed, including calls to 911 for students’ transportation to a hospital and to their parents.
“Nurses have an allergy footprint of the building,” said Hoboken Schools Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson. “They know where all the children are that have these allergies.”
The school districts say they try to balance the safety of the students with allowing them to be children.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that food in schools can be both a wonderful part of the celebration,” Johnson said, “and at the same time, something we have to be extremely careful about with kids with allergies.”

Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group