The Great Peanut Debate

Patient Expert

"To ban or not to ban?" That is the question.

My answer is yes, and no. Watch me straddle the fence here a little.

Yes, peanuts and nuts should be banned from preschool, kindergarten and elementary school classrooms when there is a student with allergies in that classroom. For very young children, the classroom, the learning environment, should be free of all foods to which the child is allergic. This may sound extreme to some but as an enlightened preschool director once told me "It's only food"

In addition, food and drinks for classroom parties should be safe for all of the children. If birthdays are celebrated in the classroom (and I really don't know why they would be when 1 in 4 American children is overweight or obese) the snacks and treats should be safe for all of the children in that classroom. The same goes for food rewards and any kind of craft project involving food (i.e. peanut butter bird feeders).

I've heard from many parents over the years who insist that allergic children need to "grow up" and "adapt to the real world" where there are nuts, peanuts and other allergens everywhere. Of course they do, but over time. In fact, as parents of children with severe food allergies, one of our most important tasks is teaching our children to advocate and care for themselves. Yes, our kids do need to adapt to the real world: they'll need to get a job, buy a car, get a mortgage, but they don't need to do all of this in second grade! We need to hand over the reigns gradually and with care. The stakes are too high if we make a mistake.

Teachers today have an immense responsibility and will always need to have an eye on the food allergic child, and in some cases he/she may have several children with special dietary needs in the same classroom, not to mention other special needs. Let's do the teacher and the child with food allergies a huge favor and keep the learning environment clean and free of allergens.

I feel a little differently about lunch. I believe that most schools can and should make the cafeteria safe for all students to eat whatever they choose. This may require additional monitoring and any number of different seating arrangements.

Some parents and children prefer that their children sit at a milk-free or peanut-free table, but many of these kids prefer to sit with their friends. Other schools are moving to a peanut or nut table, where the children sit when they choose to eat peanuts or nuts for lunch. There is no shame in bringing peanuts or nuts for these children but if you make that choice, you need to sit at a designated table.

And of course, some schools (about 20% now) are choosing to ban peanut and nut products altogether.   Above all else, this arrangement causes the most discord among parents. So we should carefully consider whether a completely peanut-free environment is necessary to keep allergic children safe. When we look at where the risks are, we see that most school reactions happen outside the cafeteria. The parties, the field trips, the classroom celebrations and these events outside of routine put allergic children at increased risk. In the lunch room, the allergic child can have his or her "safe" lunch; the children can wash up afterward and go back to their allergy-friendly classroom environment.

Studies show that when caregivers are trained to avoid, recognize and treat allergic reactions, the frequency and severity of reactions decreases. I believe that in a food allergy smart school with the appropriate accommodations in place, lunch time can be a safe and social time for all even with a variety of foods.