Local News

Food allergies present school challenges

SEBRING - While most students choose to eat what they like from the school lunch menu, more students are suffering from food allergies, which require special accommodations from school district food service departments. A 2012 report from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases noted that recent studies have found that almost 1 in 20 young children under the age of 5 years and almost 1 in 25 adults are allergic to at least one food. Other studies indicate that food allergies, especially to peanuts, are on the rise. Shrimp on the school lunch menu could be deadly for her son, said Jaclyn Allaire, a Lake Placid Elementary parent. Her first-grader, Thomas, has such a severe allergy to shellfish that coming in contact with someone who had eaten shellfish hours early will trigger a severe reaction.
The school district started serving breaded shrimp last school year in the spring, but it wasn't served at Lake Placid Elementary School because of her son's allergies, Allaire said. She was informed that shrimp will be served at the school in the spring. Allaire said she has contacted a civil rights attorney and started a petition drive to keep shellfish off the menu at Lake Plaid Elementary. Eating in his classroom or at a picnic table won't alleviative the threat to her son, she said, because the students who have eaten shellfish will then touch door handles, water fountains and computers. "All over the school there is going to be trace amounts of shellfish," she said. On the advice of legal counsel, the school district does not comment when there are legal ramifications, said Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger. Allaire is currently in an "appeal process" with the district, he said. School Board of Highlands County Food Services Director Martha Brown said she couldn't comment on the Lake Placid Elementary parent's issue, but said she could provide general information about accommodating students with food allergies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires school food service departments to make accommodations for students who have a life-threatening medical disability, she said. The food offerings don't have to meet the nutritional standards or a meal pattern, but have to meet the child's therapeutic needs. "We don't have too many children who fall into the very, very, very severe categories," Brown said. "With those that do, I try to sit down with the parents and look at the menu and determine what we can have on hand that we can accommodate this child's needs." For less severe allergies or intolerances, in what is called "offer versus serve," several options are offered from which to choose among the five meal components: meat, milk, fruit, vegetable and grains. Four different grain selections may be offered, but if a child has wheat intolerance, he may be served a hamburger without the bun, Brown said. School menus are planned well in advance of them being served, Brown noted. "We try to amend our menus or offer different items on a quarterly basis because I have to order my food items a good two to three months before we eat them." Highlands Today asked if Lake Placid Elementary will be serving shrimp. Brown said she didn't have it on the menu, yet. The menu is based on availability, price and popularity, she said. She hasn't planned anything past January. A 2010 USDA podcast to school food service directors noted that food allergies are a growing concern in school food service and a concern taken seriously because a food allergy can be life threatening to a child. USDA Food and Nutrition Service Program Analyst Mara McElmurray said, "When a licensed physician states a food allergy may result in severe, life-threatening anaphylactic reactions, the child's condition would meet the definition of 'disability' and the substitutions prescribed by the licensed physician must be made." McElmurray offered an example of a child with a life-threatening allergy that causes an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. "Parents may make a number of demands that are not reasonable for the school to make," she said. "The parent may file a civil rights complaint if they do not believe their child has been accommodated properly and if the school community is unprepared and unaware of the laws." Schools can diffuse a potentially difficult situation by creating a team approach to addressing these issues, McElmurray said. The team should involve the entire school community, such as school administrators, food service staff, teachers, school nurse, parents and physicians. mvalero@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5826