When packing a lunch for children enrolled at schools within the York Region District School Board and Halton Catholic District School Board, parents can forget about including WowButter or any other nut-free, soy-based spreads resembling peanut butter.
And those with children at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic School in Hamilton can skip items containing dairy, eggs and fish, such as cheese sticks, hard-boiled eggs or tuna sandwiches.
Schools across the GTA have been implementing bans on foods to which some students are allergic, creating headaches for parents who find themselves forced to do a lot of extra label reading and to keep their kids from taking foods they love to school that could cause allergic reactions among their peers.
The ban on milk, egg and fish products at Holy Name followed a human rights complaint by the parents of 6-year-old student Elodie Glover, who said the school wasn’t doing enough to accommodate the girl’s severe and life-threatening allergies.
But pushback is mounting: a ban on even peanut-free spreads in the Halton Catholic board spawned a parental petition arguing that with limited lunch options, peanut butter alternatives are “perfectly safe” to pack.
The food fights highlight the challenges associated with bans on particular foods.
Studies say 2.5 million Canadians report having at least one food allergy, and one in two Canadians know someone with a serious food allergy. The numbers are growing.
But how can schools keep parents and kids happy while protecting sensitive children from foods as pervasive as dairy, eggs and fish? Some are addressing the tension by moving away from all-out bans.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board and Peel District School Board, for example, have allergy policies that avoid the word “ban” because promising a risk-free environment could create a false sense of security.
Dawn Clayden, spokesperson for the York board, says schools are “not able to accommodate requests to eliminate certain food products from classrooms or schools,” because allergens are everywhere and the board could never guarantee an allergen-free school.
Policies in the Toronto District School Board often differ by classroom, says spokesperson Ryan Bird, to accommodate the specific allergies of some students without prohibiting kids in other classes from enjoying certain foods. The board doesn’t track food allergy issues in its schools.
“It really is handled on an individual school basis,” says Bird, who notes that the board has never issued a broad ban on any one product. “We don’t say ‘at the TDSB we don’t have peanut butter.’”
Ryerson University professor Nick Bellissimo, who specializes in food intake and regulation, said schools should prioritize safety, but acknowledges that finding accommodating everyone can be difficult. Parents and officials also need to be mindful of what growing children need nutritionally at a key time in their development.
“I don’t think there are any strong policies yet. It’s all about picking and choosing what is good at the time,” he said of what kind of strategies schools should implement. “Certainly, no one wants to see a child killed because they are singing to the choir instead of doing what is right.”
Since 2006, under legislation known as “Sabrina’s Law,” all schools are required to have policies in place to deal with anaphylaxis — severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.
Implemented across Canada, the law was sparked by the death of a 13-year-old girl with a severe dairy allergy who died after eating cheese-tainted fries from her school’s cafeteria. The law has boosted public awareness of severe allergies and of milder food sensitivities.
Sarah Nicholl, chair of the Toronto Anaphylaxis Education Group and mother to 6-year-old Luke — who’s allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and fish — acknowledged that filtering lunches is difficult for parents. Asking parents not to pack certain foods is often ineffective.
Instead, she favours education strategies and “policies that manage the allergies in the school environment,” such as regular hand washing, not sharing food, providing adult supervision when eating, and cleaning tables.
Others, like Bellissimo, suggest providing separate lunch rooms for students with allergies, but Anaphylaxis Canada spokesperson Beatrice Povolo says that may not be necessary.
“We’re always trying to look at that middle-of-the-road or balanced approach. We don’t want children who have allergies to be singled out,” said Povolo. “However, you also want to balance that with their safety as well.”