By Ron Leir
The Lyndhurst Board of Education is going the extra mile to protect children with severe allergies to peanuts.
At a special meeting held Oct. 21, the board voted 7-2 to ban kids in kindergarten through grade 8 from bringing nuts and/ or nut products into school. High school students must limit their consumption of nuts to the school cafeteria.
Prior to the newly amended policy, the BOE had prohibited the presence of nuts and foods with nuts in classrooms for kindergarten through third grade, while students in grades 4 to 8 (Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson Schools) were permitted to eat nuts in one designated classroom at each of those schools which custodians were asked to clean after lunch.
This policy has been in effect since 2007 – about two years after one child known to have a serious peanut allergy had an apparent reaction in an elementary school.
BOE member Jim Hooper told The Observer last week that it was one of his sons who was stricken at the time. He elaborated: “I have two sons who have peanut allergies. We don’t have cafeterias in our elementary schools and sometime during the 2004-2005 school year, one of them who was attending Roosevelt School where, at the time, the kids ate lunch in the gym, had a reaction to something while he was in his gym class.”
The boy was taken to an area hospital and recovered, Hooper said.
“If we had a new middle school and new cafeteria – which we’ve tried to get [through a public referendum that failed] – where we could come up with something that would allow non-allergic kids to eat peanuts, then maybe we could control things better,” Hooper said. “But we don’t. Some kids can go into anaphylactic shock from being exposed to peanuts. So, it’s a safety issue. “I’m not normally a guy who restricts things,” Hooper said, “but we’re trying to protect the kids.” So, in 2007, the board implemented its initial preventive policy of forbidding nuts in primary grade schools, allowing limited nut consumption in grades 4 to 8, arranging with its high school caterer not to prepare any foods with peanuts, but some months ago, a concerned parent approached the BOE and asked that it consider something more stringent to stop the potential exposure of allergic kids to peanuts, said Schools Superintendent Tracey Marinelli.
As Marinelli explained recently in a letter to school parents, “Nut allergies can be life threatening. It takes only the slightest smell, touch, or ingestion of peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, a product that may contain trace amounts of peanuts or a product that has been processed in a plant that also manufactures peanut products, to cause a potential anaphylactic reaction.
“This can happen so easily – the hands of a friend who has just finished a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a JELLYBELLY jellybean, or cookies from a bakery baked on the same pan as a peanut butter cookie. Again, it takes only the slightest smell, touch, or ingestion.
“That said … we are asking all of you to please, please keep this in mind when sending lunch, birthday treats, or any other snacks to school ….”
Marinelli suggested that parents take the time “to read the labels of any prepackaged product” or visit the district website, www.lyndhurstschools.net, and check under District News for “Food Allergy Information” for a recommended safe snack guide.
A survey of school parents revealed that district-wide, there are 57 children diagnosed as having severe peanut allergies, according to Marinelli.
Board members Christopher Musto and James Cunniff voted against the extended ban.
Musto told The Observer: “I wanted to seek a way to protect our small segment of children with severe food allergies, while providing an option for those children who enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Nutella, Granola or almonds. I was frustrated by the length of time from the issue being raised to an actual vote. I was disheartened that a ban from K to 8 was the only way the other seven members could find to resolve the issue.
“The Lyndhurst schools administration came out against my original plan [keeping the designated classroom in grades 4 to 8 for peanut eating and avoiding a total ban], stating … that they could not guarantee that one classroom would be cleaned effectively following lunch [and] that classrooms are not currently cleaned now. I thought that was completely unacceptable both as a parent and a board member … that we cannot clean 25-30 desks ….
“With that said, I feel that this nut ban provides children and parents with a false sense of security and places an unnecessary and difficult burden on lunch aides, teachers and principals. I already hear the various challenges faced by lunch aides and principals who have no idea what ingredients are in foods or how foods were prepared. This is an incredible liability for the district, being that we are saying that no nuts are allowed. … “
Musto said he felt education about “how to seek out healthy food” and about “the causes of anaphylaxis” is the key to dealing with the issue, both for kids with the allergy and their peers.
“Lastly,” he said, “any ban is a drastic step for government to take, whether it be huge sodas or nuts. I don’t believe government should be weighing in on what kids eat or drink. I believe that is the parent’s responsibility.”
Cuniff told The Observer he favored retaining the old policy which he feels is “well-written.” With the revised policy, he said, “I don’t think we’re serving the whole population. I feel bad for the kids who will only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”