How to be Fearless About Food Allergies in Schools

A young kid dressed up as a superhero.Sep 1, 2023

By Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RD, LD and updated by Caroline Young, MS, RD, LD

More than 98% of school-age children can enjoy peanuts without any issue and food allergies can be safely managed in schools while still making them available to non-allergic students.

Download this helpful resource "Instead of "Peanut Free"...Be "Allergen Aware" (PDF)

It is natural for school nutrition professionals to be nervous about managing food allergies in schools. However, with some important facts, training, planning and implementation, there is no reason that potentially allergenic foods like peanuts cannot be safely served in schools. In fact, since milk is one of the most common childhood allergen, you are already doing it! Plus, students will be missing out on the rich nutrition peanuts have to offer.

“Using peanuts and peanut butter in the school kitchen can be done without worrying about cross-contact,” said Garrett Berdan, registered dietitian and food nutrition consultant. “Just like with other safe food handling practices, simple standard operating procedures and staff training can help you meet the preferences of your customers while keeping peanut-allergic students secure.”

Since 2001, America’s peanut farmers, through the National Peanut Board (NPB), have invested more than $36 million in food allergy research, education and outreach. Early on, the Board determined that if even one person was harmed by peanuts it was one too many. To that end, NPB remains a resource for school nutrition and healthcare professionals looking to find ways to manage food allergies in a variety of settings, including in schools.

Here are some quick facts to consider:

  • About 6% of children have food allergy
  • Eight foods are responsible for 90% of all food allergic reactions – milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, shellfish, fish, soy and wheat
  • Most allergic reactions are mild and self-limiting, however any food can cause a dangerous or even life-threatening reaction
  • Many people fear airborne allergens, but research indicates that ingestion is required for anaphylaxis to occur
  • Experts do not recommend blanket food bans since they create a false sense of security and take the focus off education and onto enforcement. In fact, a Canadian study showed children had fewer accidental exposures to peanut when the school prohibited peanuts.
  • A combination of caution and preparedness will help keep all students with food allergies safe, regardless of the allergy

While eliminating the risk of accidental ingestion is impossible, having a policy or plan to manage food allergies helps ensure that students with food allergies are safe. Getting key stakeholders together to discuss how to do this is essential, including parents, students, teachers, administrators, foodservice, transportation, custodial services and nursing. Training kitchen staff on identifying allergens, preventing cross contact, and recognizing a reaction is an important step.

Moreover, utilizing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) to manage food allergies is a best practice, along with ensuring that all school staff are trained to identify a food allergy reaction and administer emergency epinephrine, if necessary. Finally, ensuring that all students with potentially life-threatening food allergies have a food allergy action plan is a key to success.

For school nutrition professionals, nurses and others who want to learn more about food allergies, please visit the following resources:

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