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Patriot Perspective: Dealing with food allergies in the school

Food allergies or food intolerances affect nearly everyone at some point in their lives. People often have an unpleasant reaction to something they ate and wonder if they have a food allergy. It is stated that only about 5 percent of children have a clinically proven allergic reaction to food. In teens and adults, clinically proven food allergies occur in about 4 percent of the population. The difference between the clinically proven prevalence of a food allergy and the public perception of the problem is in part due to reactions called “food intolerances” rather than food allergies. A food allergy, or hypersensitivity, is an abnormal response to a food that is triggered by the immune system. The immune system is not responsible for the symptoms of food intolerance, even though these symptoms can resemble those of a food allergy. For example, being allergic to milk is different from not being able to digest it properly due to lactose intolerance.

Here at the Pequot Lakes School District, we have many students with a wide array of clinically proven allergies and several with food intolerances. We currently have 20 students with peanut and tree nut allergies, five with egg allergies, three with shrimp and shellfish allergies, nine with dairy allergies, three with peaches and fruit pit allergies, one allergy to raw fruits and vegetables, and four students allergic to gluten. We also have eight students with lactose intolerance. We also have one student with Phenylketonuria (also called PKU) a condition in which your body can’t break down an amino acid called phenylalanine. Amino acids help build protein in your body. Without treatment, phenylalanine builds up in the blood and causes health problems. A person with PKU limits his/her diet to fruits, vegetables and grains.

How do we handle these allergies and intolerances, you ask? We do whatever is possible to get each of these students a full meal that is free from their allergen(s). For those with dairy allergies, many of our entrees do not contain dairy. We also prepare sandwiches and burgers without cheese, the salad bar option is available at the middle school/high school (they just don’t take the cheese, yogurt or cottage cheese), and middle school/high school students can also choose options from the taco bar, minus the cheese or cheese sauce.

We currently have four students allergic to gluten. Gluten is a specific type of protein not found in meat or eggs, but is found in wheat, rye and barley. Eating gluten-free means staying away from these grains. A gluten-free diet is essential for most people with gluten allergies or celiac disease, a condition which causes intestinal damage when gluten is consumed. We get many gluten-free products from our vendors here at school and we do prepare for these students, upon request, a full, gluten-free meal any day they want.

As far as the peanut and tree nut allergies go, we do not serve anything at the elementary school that contains peanuts or tree nuts. We also provide a “peanut free” table for students with this type of allergy. They are welcome to invite their friends to join them at this table, as long as the friends do not have anything with peanuts or tree nuts in his/her cold lunch. At the middle school/high school, we do serve peanut butter sandwiches daily on the soup and sandwich line. These are well-labeled and as the students reach middle school age, they are able to distinguish what they can and cannot have. Our foodservice staff is aware of all students with allergies and can assist them in their choices if they need help.

Each of the other allergies are handled on a case-by-case basis. With the additional options offered at the middle school/high school, a student with an allergy to something being served may choose from one of the other three options.

The foodservice staff at both schools are properly trained on all the necessary food preparation techniques to avoid cross-contamination. They are also trained on what symptoms to watch for in a child who is having an allergic reaction, as well as how to administer an EpiPen.

Our goal in the foodservice department at Pequot Lakes School is to get every student a good, nutritious and safe meal!