Growing up peanut-free Allergy: Schools are trying to help a growing number of children who are allergic to peanuts.

November 01, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The table looks like any other inside Ilchester Elementary School's cafeteria: a dozen first-graders chattering and feasting on shiny red apples, yogurt, cheese-flavored crackers and pizza slices.

But one childhood staple is missing from this corner of the lunchroom: peanuts.

"I don't like to bring peanut butter. It makes me feel like I'm sick," says Julia Millard, a 6 1/2 -year-old first-grader at Ilchester's "Peanut Butter Free" table, meant for children who are allergic to peanuts and peanut products.

At Ilchester in Ellicott City and across Maryland, educators are trying to deal with a growing number of children who cannot tolerate peanuts, and the accommodations have touched all parts of school life.

Some administrators arrange special seating on buses for children with the allergy. Teachers are being trained to administer emergency medication in case of an attack. And some parents supply peanut-free treats for schools to store, so their children aren't left out of celebrations such as birthday parties.

"In some of the schools, we have even stopped baking peanut butter cookies because the parents have indicated that some children are even sensitive to the smells," says Marge Hoffmaster, coordinator of health services for Carroll County schools.

4 All because of the tiny -- but potent -- peanut.

According to Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Virginia-based Food Allergy Network, peanuts top a list of about eight foods that are responsible for 90 percent of the allergic reactions in the United States. Allergic reactions can result in constricted airways, a swollen throat and tongue, dizziness and a rapid heartbeat.

Most children will outgrow a food allergy, with the exception of peanuts and tree nuts, which include pine nuts, pecans and walnuts, Munoz-Furlong says.

"We know that [peanuts] cause the majority of the severe or fatal reactions," she says. "The problem then becomes that we've got a food that is a very popular staple for children."

Some schools across the nation have gone so far as to ban peanuts and their products from cafeterias, but most area public schools have adopted a combination of education, monitoring and preparation.

Most allergy experts and educators frown on a sweeping ban of peanuts, saying it creates a false sense of security for allergic children. Though most school districts work to ensure that children with such allergies do not come into contact with certain foods, students should learn how to monitor their allergies, they say.

Typical of area districts, Baltimore County schools have seen an increase in the number of parents inquiring about food allergies, says JoAnne Koehler, manager of the school system's office of food and nutrition. And as in other nearby districts, such allergies are handled on a case-by-case basis, with parents, the school nurse and cafeteria staff working together to control a child's exposure to certain foods.

"While we want them to be safe, we want them to ask questions. We want them to monitor," Koehler says. "That advice has come to us from many professionals. Even children with allergies usually don't want to be treated differently."

Individual schools sometimes create their own policies.

In Carroll County, some schools have designated peanut-free tables similar to the one at Ilchester, Hoffmaster says. Children with peanut allergies also have special seating on school buses, and the bus driver is made aware of the situation. And emergency medication is kept in classrooms, saving precious seconds that could be wasted going to the nurse's office.

Besides offering a special cafeteria table, Ilchester provides parents with information about food allergies and has begun a weekly series of articles about the subject in the school newsletter, says Principal Jacqueline Conarton. Every staff member has received training from a Howard County allergist, ++ and bus drivers and substitute teachers are provided with photographs of children who have food allergies.

"We celebrate each birthday by having one birthday party per class per month," Conarton says. "That way you can control the kind of food that's coming in."

The children have come to regard the peanut-free table as a treat, Conarton says. Their friends are allowed to sit with them so long as they don't bring foods with peanuts for lunch.

Sitting at the table, first-grader Shelby Wishner nibbles on Doritos, which her parents packed along with a Hi-C juice box and a chicken salad, described only as "something that didn't taste very good."

"It's OK," Shelby says of her designated table. "I get to sit with my friends."

Shelby was a year old the first time she had an allergic reaction to peanuts. Her mother fed her some peanut butter and she broke out in hives.

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