Lynette Thompson fondly recalls baking special treats for her daughter’s elementary classroom parties. But homemade goodies in class aren’t an option at the school her younger son attends. Out of concern for Blake Thompson, 12, and other students with allergies to peanuts and other nuts, the school banned homemade treats this school year in favor of specific brands of store-bought foods on a recommended list of “safe snacks.”
Lynette Thompson fondly recalls baking special treats for her daughter’s elementary classroom parties.
But homemade goodies in class aren’t an option at the school her younger son attends.
Out of concern for Blake Thompson, 12, and other students at Rochester (Ill.) Middle School with allergies to peanuts and other nuts, the school banned homemade treats this school year in favor of specific brands of store-bought foods on a recommended list of “safe snacks.”
The precautions for Blake include him sitting at a “nut-free” table with several other classmates in the cafeteria at lunchtime to reduce the chance that they will touch or ingest peanut products.
“I think it’s changed my life because I’m paranoid about it,” said Blake, whose last allergic reaction took place at school about a year ago. “I’m a lot more aware than the other kids and it’s made me more grown-up because I’ve had to take on more responsibility than most kids my age.”
The situation in Rochester is one outgrowth of the growing number of children — about 2.2 million in the United States — with food allergies.
Blake’s mother, a 42-year-old teacher’s aide whose concerns fueled several changes at the 460-pupil public school, said she is “very satisfied” with all of the cooperation.
She has made informing the public about food allergies a personal crusade, particularly when it comes to the widespread use of nuts and nut-based oils in food and food processing.
“It’s so important to educate people,” said Thompson, whose son’s allergy to peanuts and some other foods became obvious a few months after he was born. “Half a peanut can kill anyone with peanut allergy.”
More than 12 million Americans — one in 25 — have food allergies, according to the Virginia-based Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Food allergies cause up to 200 deaths a year and an estimated 30,000 emergency-room visits.
Moreover, about 1.5 million U.S. schoolchildren — slightly more than 1 percent — are allergic to peanuts, a food that can cause some of the most severe reactions and may not subside in adulthood. The incidence of peanut allergies in children doubled between 1997 and 2002, according to one study.
Scientists aren’t sure why rates are increasing and why severe food allergies are all-but-nonexistent in Third World countries. Allergies can be inherited, but one theory for the rise in Western countries is that the widespread use of antibiotics and an emphasis on cleanliness and immunizations, combined with less exposure to natural germs in childhood, have caused some people’s immune systems to go haywire and become hyper-sensitive.
There’s also debate over the magnitude of the problem.
The Illinois State Board of Education and most school districts don’t keep statistics and don’t have comprehensive policies for dealing with food allergies. This frustrates advocates who add that most school districts don’t hire enough school nurses — key players in safeguarding children with allergies and other health problems.
The advocates say allergy plans often are formed in response to allergy-related deaths.
“There ought to be protocols in place for these children,” said Julie Campbell, president of the Northfield-based Illinois Food Allergy Education Association. “It’s hard for parents to reinvent the wheel every time their children go to a new school.”
Many educators say they are certain that food allergies, and particularly nut allergies, are on the rise.
They say more and more children are coming to school with EpiPens — portable devices prescribed by kids’ doctors to dispense a pre-measured dose of epinephrine to reduce the severity of allergic reactions.
Rochester Middle School, which has 10 children with peanut allergies, may be more aggressive than most Illinois schools in working to prevent food allergy reactions.
In addition to banning homemade treats for the classroom and providing a “nut-free” table, the school makes sure that children who have just eaten peanut butter or other peanut products wash their hands before heading to recess or class.
That way, the kids are less likely to touch a ball or a doorknob or something else that would set off a reaction in an allergic student, said school nurse Suzann Segatto.
The school provided a nut-free table for several years but took the extra steps after Blake’s reaction in January 2007. It apparently occurred after he touched something, possibly a cafeteria tray, because he wasn’t eating anything with peanuts that day, his mother said.
Blake’s reaction, which caused his throat to swell and made him short of breath, required an ambulance trip to the hospital and intravenous drug therapy.
As an extra precaution, Blake no longer eats a hot lunch at the school and brings his lunch every day.
Principal Laurie Lundin said parents of non-allergic students at Rochester Middle School haven’t complained about the changes made to accommodate Blake and the other children.
Neither Thompson nor her husband, Dan, is allergic to certain foods, but they have had to become vigilant wherever Blake may be exposed to unfamiliar foods or foods cooked at unfamiliar places.
Lynette Thompson said she calls restaurants ahead of time when Blake’s traveling baseball team might stop there for a meal after a game. She asks restaurants about the way food is prepared and the ingredients used.
“It’s just a way of life,” she said.
Dean Olsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Food allergy facts
What is a food allergy? A condition in which the immune system — in response to a taste, touch or smell — incorrectly identifies a food protein as a threat and attempts to protect the body against it by releasing chemicals into the blood. The release of these chemicals results in the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
What is anaphylaxis? A serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death. Such reactions also can be caused by bee stings, drugs and latex.
Is there a cure for food allergy? No. Strict avoidance of the food allergen is the only way to prevent a reaction. Research toward a cure is ongoing.
Symptoms of a reaction to peanuts: construction of airways, wheezing, rapid or weak pulse, drop in blood pressure, dizziness and nausea.
Common food products that can trigger symptoms if they contain peanut proteins: peanut butter, ground or mixed nuts, cookies or pastries, salad dressings, ice cream.
Ways to prevent peanut reactions: notify key people that your child has a peanut allergy, write an action plan, have your child wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace, discourage your child from sharing foods.
For more information: The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, (800) 929-4040, www.foodallergy.org
Sources: MayoClinic.com and The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network