No rule for handling food allergies in Pennsylvania schools
By Brad Pedersen
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:50 p.m.
Gateway is among the many western Pennsylvania school districts that don't have a district-wide policy concerning food allergies and instead opt to deal with such conditions on a case-by-case basis.
Many school officials 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 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, a potentially life-threatening condition.
The parents of a former Fairview Elementary student filed a lawsuit against Fox Chapel Area School District in U.S. District Court earlier this month that accuses officials of discriminating 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, district officials isolated him by placing him at a separate desk.
School district spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski said that the district “has and will continue to make appropriate accommodations for students with allergies.”
At Gateway there is no district policy as it pertains to food allergies, said district spokeswoman Cara Zanella.
“Each school handles it differently,” she said.
At Ramsey Elementary School, where there are 45 students with food allergies, parents often send in safe snacks for the teacher to have on hand for birthday celebrations and classroom parties, Zanella said.
Cafeteria workers at Mosside Middle School are alerted on their computer screen which students are allergic as they reach the front of the line, while the school nurses carry epipens in the event that a student has an undiagnosed allergy, she said.
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.
A 2008 study by the federal 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, district officials work 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. “School staff is constantly monitoring the situation.”
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 and Daveen Rae Kurutz also contributed to this report.
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