Parents Want Better Oversight of Food Allergy Control in Schools | Connecticut Public Radio
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Parents Want Better Oversight of Food Allergy Control in Schools

Feb 18, 2015

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Parents in the town of Fairfield are locking horns with public school teachers over the best way to keep kids with food allergies safe. Part of that controversy is over who is responsible for reading food labels.

If you have a kid in public school, chances are you might have gotten a note from your teacher about what foods are okay to bring to class, like fresh fruit, and what foods aren't, like peanuts or cheese. But what about packaged or store-bought foods, where sometimes the food labels aren't so clear?

Jessica Curran has two kids with life-threatening food allergies who go to school in Fairfield. She thinks there should be a gatekeeper who checks labels on the food kids bring to school.

"Where things are falling apart is within the actual protocols in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the school buildings, where someone within those buildings needs to have oversight of the food," Curran said.

Allergic reactions can happen from simply touching something that has residue of an allergen on it. While deaths are infrequent, hundreds of thousands of children are hospitalized each year due to adverse food reactions, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Prevention is the best strategy, health experts say, and the first step requires parents of all kids to check the labels on any packaged foods they send to school.

Most parents and teachers agree that developing a safe snack list is a way for parents to know what's safe to send to school.

But what role do teachers have? As the last safety net, Curran and many parents think  that teachers should read food labels. That doesn't sit well with Bob Smoler, president of Fairfield's teachers union.

"Teachers are trained in educating students, they aren't trained in reading labels which often times are confusing or have words on them that a layman might not understand," Smoler said.

Smoler said everyone has student safety as a top priority, but that it's impossible to keep all kids safe all the time.

"There's nothing to stop a child from having a peanut butter sandwich at home, for breakfast, wiping some residue on their pants, and then going out to recess during the school day and somebody potentially rubs his pants, I mean, stuff can happen," Smoler said.

Representatives from the Connecticut Teachers Association, the parent organization over the Fairfield teacher's union, were unavailable to comment for this story.

Parent Curran said there is also resistance from other parents who feel they're being unnecessarily restricted from being able to give their kids the snacks they want.

"Things have been proposed... like eliminating peanuts and tree nuts products from schools -- it's met with a lot of resistance," Curran said. "That's from parents and also teaching staff. They don't feel equipped to manage the food in their classroom."

Tricia Donovan also has two children with severe food allergies in Fairfield Schools. She said one of the biggest challenges is educating the community about food allergies and creating solutions that involve input from various stakeholders. 

"It cannot be ever in the hands of one person," Donovan said. "It has to be a multi-tiered system where you educate the parents at home of all students -- students with life-threatening food allergies and students without..."

Most parents and teachers agree that developing a safe snack list is a way for parents to know what's safe to send to school. But Curran noted that there are cultural and social ties to food that are difficult to break. 

The state passed legislation in 2005 that required school districts to develop guidelines for managing food allergies in schools, and the law was updated in 2012. However, as State Rep. Brenda Kupchick points out, compliance has been spotty. 

"Towns are sort of picking and choosing how they're going to implement those guidelines, and frankly the districts across the state are all over the map on how they implement allergy policies," Kupchick said.

This session, Kupchick wants to set up a task force to explore how to best get districts in compliance with state law and figure out who, if anyone, should be reading food labels. Parents Curran and Donovan hope the state will require districts to report allergic reaction incidents to better track the effectiveness of each district's plan.