The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a longtime staple of lunch for the American elementary school student. But what has been a tasty school snack for one student can mean a death sentence for another.
Researchers from Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18 -- that's one in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom -- and to help keep kids safer, parents, schools, state leaders and students themselves are pitching in to make school environments a safe place to eat.
Doing its part to counter the growing concerns and to help make students with dietary restrictions feel more welcome at school, the Pleasanton Unified School District has started working to create "inclusive cafeterias" in its schools.
"I am new to Pleasanton Unified, but in my previous district, I spoke with many parents whose students just wanted to feel normal, and be able to eat in the cafeteria but felt isolated because they or their parents felt nervous that their meal allergens or aversion would not be taken seriously or could not be accommodated," said Kelsey Perusse, a registered dietitian nutritionist and coordinator of the PUSD's Child Nutrition Service Department.
"Our priority is creating an environment where students, and their parents, feel encouraged and welcomed into the cafeteria," she added.
Perusse explained that the her department is working so that schools will be supplied with tasty meals that can be enjoyed by all students, and those with allergies do not have to be as worried when they head into the cafeteria. Children with meal accommodation forms are given meals that meet their needs, and special products are brought in to ensure that students with allergies are given options similar to what their peers are eating.
Another helpful tactic is eliminating allergens in meals where they will not be missed. For example, Perusse says there are a lot of great gluten-free options that are being produced that would "not be missed by the students without allergies, but would just make it that much easier for a student with a wheat or gluten allergy to join us in the cafeteria."
"Again, it will take time, but our thought is simple. We are here for the students, and we want them to feel welcome and nourished when they come to the cafeteria," she added. "The beauty of food is that it brings people together. So the greatest concern about allergies is how do we best create a menu where all students feel welcome, and this we are working on."
To help accommodate and protect their students with food allergies, the PUSD's Health Services Department has a series of policies in place such as equipping school sites with EpiPens, conducting staff training on food allergy management including EpiPen administration, and conducting food allergy awareness presentations in classrooms.
"It's an epidemic that is growing so we are really hoping to get the school district on board with implementing policies that keep our children safe," Tara Gilad, a mother of a child with a severe nut allergy in the San Ramon Valley, told the Weekly.
After discovering their daughter's allergy and wanting to find safe healthy food alternatives to provide her and people who have similar severe allergies, Gilad and her husband Roy in 2011 founded the San Ramon-based "superfood cafe" Vitality Bowls.
"It was really scary. Being a first-time mom as well, it was really scary. We were afraid to feed here until I started making her her own baby food and canning it and storing it and I ended up starting a business because of it. That's why we started Vitality Bowls... we took a really negative scary situation and turned it into a very positive situation."
Gilad has also been working with the principal of Alamo Elementary School, in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, to make her daughter's school safer for all kids, an effort she hopes will expand to other schools in the region. Key aspects of creating an allergy-safe school include installing nut-free tables, setting up hand sanitizer stations that students can use before and after eating, and encouraging parents to not bring potentially deadly foods such as nuts to school.
"The students are amazing. I volunteered every day for the first month of school to see what the reaction was and the students are very sweet and they want to sit with their friends at nut-free tables. They make sure their parents do not pack them nuts," Gilad added.
At the state level, State Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) passed AB 1532 "The Natalie Giorgi Sunshine Act," in remembrance of 13-year-old Danville resident Natalie Giorgi, who died in 2013 after a severe reaction to a peanut allergy while at summer camp.
Signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in July, AB 1532 requires that all food handlers have certification in safe food handling practices for major food allergens, ensuring that food handlers will be versed in things like cross-contamination and how to properly deal with a customer's allergies.
"After learning of Natalie's heartbreaking story and meeting with her parents and their foundation, I was inspired to act to ensure this never happens to another child," said Bauer-Kahan. "An hour of a food handler's time could literally save lives."