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Parents split on school ban on whole-class snacks

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Proactive stance to protect children with allergies

"That is a sad day when kids can't even have a little cupcake party."

Similar grumblings have recently been expressed on social media and general conversation from some parents (and children) surprised and disappointed at recent changes in the Wilson County School System related to restricting group-shared food items at such things as classroom birthday parties and holiday celebrations.

However, something as innocent as sharing birthday cupcakes or snacks with beloved classmates, can, worst-case scenario, cause those very playmates and friends to become seriously ill or even die because of an allergic reaction.

In proactive mode, and with a strong desire to prevent such worse case scenarios in our public school system, Wilson County School officials a few weeks back put into place stricter guidelines that restrict sharing food at celebrations. However, they offer a multitude of alternatives.

Also, it's important to note the restrictions are limited to group-shares only, and parents can still pack a lunch with whatever food for their child's individual consumption.

It's not about being a 'kill-joy'

Chuck Whitlock is the system's director of coordinated school health and athletics. He doesn't like being a "kill-joy" or the "school food police," but he said he realizes it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to perhaps saving the life of an innocent child exposed to a life-threatening allergy trigger.

"The Centers for Disease Control estimates one in 13 children have a food allergy, and 40 percent of these children have had a severe allergic reaction, with many happening at school," he said.

Whitlock noted for some reason the rates of reported childhood allergies have increased since 1997. The system's emergency allergy response plan says, "The Wilson County School District is committed to reducing student and staff exposure to food, skin and respiratory allergens."

The plan says responses can very from mild irritation to anaphylaxis (severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) and potential "death."

Currently, an "Allergy Action Plan," will be developed for each student with a known allergy, said system Health Services Coordinator Donna Lawrence. The system also developed lists of food and skin allergy precautions.

"Schools Director Donna Wright is very much behind what we are doing, and the precautions are in place now," Lawrence said. "We have provided safe alternatives with no food at celebrations. We will not jeopardize the health of one child."

Lawrence said teachers have dealt with episodes when students experience allergic reactions.

"They've had to use the EpiPen while in class," she noted. "We don't want anyone to have to go through that." (Epipen is a medical device for injecting a measured dose or doses of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, by means of autoinjector technology. It is most often used for the treatment of anaphylaxis.)

"Other school systems are also restricting group sharing of food as well," said Lawrence. "They have implemented similar restrictions in bits and pieces. This makes it a whole lot easier for everyone."

No cupcakes? What then?

Lawrence said they would go forth on a "positive note," and offer "safer options" for parents.

"One teacher reported a child was upset there was not a big buffet for Valentine's activities (though delayed because of snow, some classes celebrated late), but she had crafts and they made cards," said Whitlock. "There was a concerted effort to have fun and they made some great memories."

School officials expressed they thoroughly realize birthdays and holidays are important to every child, and children like to celebrate with their classmates. Because sending a food treat to the classroom to celebrate can be dangerous or exclude those children with food allergies, diabetes, celiac disease or other dietary restrictions, they suggest these alternatives.

"Always check with your child's teacher first to see what he or she finds acceptable," they suggest.

Some ideas include party favors such as erasers, notepads and whistles. Some great places to purchase these are Target and Michael's and catalogs such as Oriental Trading Company.

"It's nice to come into the classroom and read a book to the class," suggested Lawrence.

Another suggestion is to decorate a box and send it to the classroom including index cards and have the teacher ask each student to use one sentence to write something nice about the birthday student and put into the box. The student can take the box home. Parents can also arrange a play game, or extra recess time in honor of their child. Other such things take the students' focus away from food treats that in the past have also given students a "sugar high," which puts the teacher in a tough spot.

Skin, respiratory allergies

Because skin allergies affect 12 to 15 percent of children, the system has also put in to effect skin allergy precautions. Plant material, animal dander, synthetic dyes and insects are the most common skin allergens. Latex items like gloves and balloons are not permitted on district property. Animals, pets or insects are only allowed in schools if used as a service animal or for activities approved by the principal and nurse. There's a form to fill out.

Also, there are new respiratory allergy precautions, said Whitlock. These allergens affect 12 to 22 percent of children, according to system notes. Examples include mold spores, pollen, cleaning agents, perfumes and air fresheners. Some precautions include teachers and staff only use odorless cleaners and products that meet the EPA Safer Choice Standards, use of air fresheners and excessive perfume is discouraged and mold and mildew issues promptly reported.

It's important to note there are several courses for older students exempt from the food allergy precaution mandate and these can be known by contacting the school system.

"Our intent is to indeed make memories with celebrations," Lawrence said. "But there are so many alternatives for us to have a long shelf life for memories."

Whitlock noted a sad incident outside of the school system, and one he said makes these restrictions worthy. He noted a child got a cookie from a grocery store. The mother knew very well her child's allergies and asked about nuts in the cookies. There were none. However, her child later took one bite of the cookie at home, reacted and tragically died.

"It was cross-contamination," Whitlock said.

For more information about the new mandates, district representatives said to contact your child's teacher.

Writer Laurie Everett may be contacted at

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