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Parents brave minefield to wrangle school nut allergy issues

by: COURTESY OF THE J.M. SMUCKER CO. - Parents at a Portland school worry that children with nut allergies could be at risk because the district offers Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.A mother whose 7-year-old son has a life-threatening peanut allergy is rankled by Portland Public Schools’ refusal to stop sending pre-packaged peanut butter sandwiches to their school as a lunch choice.

Grazia Cunningham, whose first-grader attends Beverly Cleary School in Northeast Portland, began asking PPS Nutrition Services to stop sending Smucker's Uncrustables peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the school three months ago.

Beverly Cleary, a K-8 school of 730 students down the street from Grant High School, is split into two campuses a half-mile apart. Kindergarteners and first-graders attend the Hollyrood campus, a building so small that it is the only PPS school without its own cafeteria. Students eat lunch in their classrooms.

Cunningham says parents at her school have already agreed to avoid bringing peanut or nut products from home, since the chance of cross-contamination could send her son into anaphylactic shock.

Her son's classroom has been declared "safe" under a federally protected education plan she sought for him. But other children at the school who have allergies and are not protected by such plans are at risk, she says.

The issue has attracted national attention lately because more school districts are adopting their own policies regarding peanut and other food allergies.

Public schools in Sacramento last month banned peanut butter sandwiches from their menus after a 13-year-old Sacramento girl died at a summer camp after biting into a Rice Krispy treat.

“I’m not asking for a districtwide ban,” says Cunningham, who has a public health degree from OHSU and now stays home to be a full-time mom to her two PPS students, plus two younger children. “I’m not asking for everything to go peanut-free or nut-free. We all have to live in the environment and truly know how to minimize risk. But when you don’t have a cafeteria, that poses a very real problem to kids who are living in their classroom.”

'It's like a minefield'

PPS Nutrition Services Director Gitta Grether-Sweeney told the Tribune on Thursday that she stands by her decision to keep sending the Uncrustables.

"It's a favorite," she says. "Twelve percent of the kids that eat school lunch are eating peanut butter sandwiches, especially the younger grades. They love it."

The pre-packaged sandwich doesn't need to be refrigerated, which is why she says PPS uses them for field trips. In addition, "We do have a contract with the vendor, but that's not necessarily what's keeping us," she says.

At Hollyrood, Grether-Sweeney says she's been "working with the parents to keep the child safe. ... The way things are set up, the kids that eat peanut butter sit outside in the hall; they don't even enter the classroom. Before they do, they wash their hands, and the desks are cleaned before and after lunch."

"Child safety is a No. 1 for us," she says. "It's a win-win."

In a December email to Cunningham, Grether-Sweeney says pre-packaged peanut butter sandwiches are "a well-accepted lunch option that is part of the menu developed to meet nutrition standards and food preferences of the 21,000 students we feed each day."

She also says it's "easily identified as a product containing peanuts and the individually wrapped sandwich helps prevent cross contamination."

Even as Nutrition Services strives to focus on local ingredients, scratch-made dishes, garden eduction and educating children's palates, Grether-Sweeney says something has to be familiar.

"We have to consider the needs of other students to have a familiar food as an option to the main entree, and serving this familiar food prevents students from going hungry at lunch," Grether-Sweeney wrote in an October email to Cunningham.

Cunningham says she would happily help create another familiar food option, like like a turkey sandwich, veggie sandwich or bagel and cream cheese.

Board member Steve Buel has tried to advocate for Cunningham at board meetings and through his own messages to the board. "It's like a minefield for this kid," he says of the risks posed by cross-contamination.

In a December email response to one of Buel's messages, PPS board member Tom Koehler said he was in support of change. "I am hoping we find a solution before school starts back up in January," Koehler wrote.

Top issue at school

It isn't just Cunningham leading the fight at her school. Parents met recently to discuss the issue and began a print and online petition to stop sending Uncrustables to Beverly Cleary this year.

Even as the school tries do deal with its overcrowding issue (which is why it lost its cafeteria), some parents see the nut allergy issue as the top issue at their school.

It's "the most immediate threat to some of the kids," says Lisa McKerlick, whose son at Hollyrood is nut-allergic. The administrators have sent out a newsletter discouraging parents from sending their kids to school with nuts in their lunches and have introduced safe allergen practices and training into the classrooms, but PPS continues to send Uncrustables.

"If kids and parents can make sacrifices, so should PPS nutrition services," Cunningham says. "If you don't want kids to shoot each other, you don't supply them with guns in the classroom."

Another Hollyrood parent, Heidi Hardman, says her non-allergic first-grader packed peanut butter and jelly in his lunch nearly every day last year because they had a lunchroom with a designated nut-free table.

Now that they must eat in their classrooms, Hardman says her son is concerned for his allergic peers and takes an interest in the food he brings for lunch.

"I am actually happy that he has a much wider variety — soup, pasta, potstickers, burritos, leftovers from dinner, etc." Hardman says. "It has not been hard to provide a healthy lunch that is safe for the other kids with life-threatening food allergies."

Hardman adds that with PPS' focus on healthy foods, she'd like to see a districtwide ban on Uncrustables for health reasons alone.

"It is likely very inexpensive, comes frozen and requires little work to serve," she says. "However, I expect better for all our kids. I'd like PPS to consider not serving Uncrustables to any of their students district-wide. I think the life of a child — even ONE child — is worth the small cost of changing a sandwich."