Districts tackle food allergies differently
Few Western Pennsylvania school districts have policies on handling food allergies, instead handling a rise in students who suffer from such conditions on a case-by-case basis.
Many schools leave food decisions up to food service providers, said Michelle Marker, program director at the Nutrition Group, which handles food services for several districts.
“It's not one-size-fits-all, so we try to customize our approach with each district,” Marker said. “It depends on the allergies, but if you have a life-threatening nut allergies, most schools will completely remove items, like peanut butter, from the district.”
Reactions as a result of a food allergy can be mild in some children, but deadly in others. Some nut allergies lead to wheezing and anaphylaxis shock, creating a potentially life-threatening condition.
The parents of a former Fairview Elementary student filed a lawsuit against Fox Chapel School District in U.S. District Court earlier this month, saying that officials discriminated against their son, who had a tree nut allergy, by refusing to develop a plan to protect him from exposure.
According to the lawsuit, instead of accommodating their son, the district isolated him by placing him at a separate desk.
Fox Chapel School District spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski said that the district “has and will continue to make appropriate accommodations for students with allergies.”
Pennsylvania has no state law governing food issues for students, and its schools follow federal laws, which require schools take steps to incorporate students with the fewest restrictions, officials say.
Seneca Valley is one of the districts that does have an allergy management policy in place.
“This policy identifies a number of important procedures in regards to food allergies, one of them being the establishment of allergen-protected zones within school buildings, including cafeterias,” Seneca Valley spokesperson Linda Andreassi said.
“Along with this policy comes a comprehensive allergy management plan of about 60 pages. In it are approved snack lists, guidelines for field trips, staff training, cleaning procedures and protocols for handling a reaction should one take place, just to name a few.”
“Seneca Valley works closely with parents anytime a student in our care is identified as having a life-threatening allergy. Through those important parent communications, we are able to determine what precautions are needed not only in the cafeteria but the classroom(s) as well.”
A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that four out of 100 children under the age of 18 had a food allergy — an increase of nearly 20 percent since 1997.
The Nutrition Group works with parents, the school nurse and building principals to handle food allergies, Marker said.
Typically, schools provide ingredient lists for each food product available for parents to review, and most school point-of-purchase systems will note any food allergies a student may have, Marker said.
Norwin School District has very few children with special dietary needs, according to food service director Rod Stewart.
Most of those students' needs are brought to the district's attention early in the school year, when parents fill out dietary needs forms, Stewart said.
The forms require a physician to provide a list of foods students must avoid, he added.
Franklin Regional School District allows nuts and nut-based products in its cafeterias, but provides a separate, nut-free lunch table for students who have allergies, according to Sandra Showman, the district's health services coordinator.
When a student has an allergy, the district works to inform the student's teachers, classmates and families with a letter, explaining the situation, Showman said.
“They are asked not to bring snacks or treats containing nuts because a fellow student has an allergy,” Showman said. If even one student has a food allergy, Penn-Trafford School District and their food service provider, Aramark, works to eliminate it from the school lunchrooms, said Pat Blahovec, the Penn-Trafford High School nurse.
About 60 of the high school's 1,400 students have a food allergy, she said.
“Our district has a pretty stringent food-allergy policy,” Blahovec said.
“We are really good at knowing the dangers of it (allergens) and being proactive.”
While Franklin Regional and Penn-Trafford works to inform anyone the student might come in contact with about their allergies, or eliminate foods altogether, most districts handle allergies on a case-by-case basis.
In Pine-Richland School District, the school nurses work with students individually, district communications director Rachel Hathorn said.
“The nurses work together with parents, the child's doctor and staff to develop a plan to keep the child safe in the school setting,” she said.
Each of the eight schools in the Shaler Area School District has its own procedures to deal with nut-based allergies, depending upon the allergies' severity, according to Chris Grossman, administrative assistant to the superintendent.
“Their processes can include nut-free tables, classrooms or other preventative measures,” Grossman said. “Generally, a cooperative agreement between parents, staff and food services work to make their environment as safe as possible.”
Quaker Valley School District does not restrict students' food choices in the lunchroom, but, during special events with snacks, parents are asked to refrain from serving nuts, or any other allergenic foods, spokeswoman Tina Vojtko said.
In addition to nut allergies, Vojtko said a number of students have allergies to dairy products, as well.
“The district does not track allergies collectively – each child and their allergy is handled individually,” she said.
Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Adam Brandolph, Patrick Varine, Bobby Cherry, Bethany Hofstetter, Chris Foreman, Matt DeFusco and Daveen Rae Kurutz also contributed to this report.