Student lunches: Parkway introduces peanut butter alternative
By: Carol Enright
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches began disappearing from some school lunch lines years ago as local districts recognized the growing prevalence of nut allergies among students. The Parkway School District removed products containing peanuts and tree nuts from its elementary school lunches more than a decade ago. But in January, it began serving SunButter, a physician-approved peanut butter alternative made from sunflower seeds. According to Parkway’s director of food services, Marlene Pfeiffer, SunButter offers all the nutrition of nuts – vitamin E, protein and healthy fats – without the risks of setting off a potentially lethal reaction in a child with nut allergies.
A 2008 report issued by the Centers for Disease Control showed food allergies among children increasing nearly 20 percent between 1997 and 2007.
Dr. James Temprano, adult and pediatric allergist at Mercy Clinic, confirmed the nut allergy trend.
“In studies that have been done, it appears that there has been a recent increase in the prevalence of peanut and tree nut allergies,” he said.
Temprano estimated that 1 to 2 percent of the population is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. He said there are several theories as to why the population is experiencing an increase in food allergies, but these theories are a moving target.
“We have a lot of theories, but we really don’t know a firm answer for what the cause is for the increase,” Temprano said.
One thing is clear about a nut allergy.
“It can always be life threatening,” Temprano said.
At Parkway, Pfeiffer said, “We take it very seriously.”
In fact, Parkway elementary school cafeterias serve only peanut- and tree nut-free meals. Parkway students are free to bring peanut butter in their lunch boxes, but they cannot sit at the peanut-free table unless they purchase a school lunch. Parkway’s middle and high school lunchrooms are not as strictly monitored. Pfeiffer said students of that age understand exactly what they can and cannot eat – and are very good at reading labels.
The Rockwood School District offers peanut-safe zones for allergic students, but its school cafeterias are not nut-free. Instead, the district publishes an allergy calendar that shows the allergens – such as wheat, egg, milk, nut, gluten and soy – present in every item served in school lunches.
Rockwood’s director of child nutrition, Carmen Fischer, said there are several reasons why the district is not peanut-free, including the fact that “manufacturers change production locations and formulas, so we cannot be 100 percent certain that something doesn’t contain peanuts.”
“If a student has an allergy that the district is aware of, the Child Nutrition Services staff puts that information into our meal system so that the cashier can be made aware that the child has a food allergy and look at the tray to ensure that item is not included in their lunch,” Fischer added.
Amy Wehr, Rockwood’s supervisor of wellness, said “it’s hard for a district to be 100 percent nut-free because there is no way to monitor if a child comes into a building after having peanut butter and, therefore, still has residue on their hands or clothes.”
“Additionally, we don’t have the manpower to check lunches for all who bring food from home – and check all the warning labels to see if a product has been processed in a facility that also processes peanuts,” Wehr said.
At Parkway, Pfeiffer said she has met parents of children with nut allergies and her “heart goes out to them.”
“I love peanut butter, too,” said Pfeiffer. “And sometimes, you think, ‘I wish we could serve this.’ But when you see the fear in those parents’ eyes and then the reassurance of, ‘Thank God you don’t serve anything like that here,’ it really makes you feel blessed that you don’t have to deal with that.”