Starting primary school: nut bans, school dinners and safety plans

Without wanting to tempt fate, it appears we’ve struck lucky with my son’s new school on the nut allergy front.

D starts reception class in September. We’ve recently been for our initial meeting with his teachers to talk about his allergies. Here’s how we got on…

Nut free school?

When I had a tour of the primary school last December, I was advised that, although the school was nut free, they hadn’t yet needed to impose a “nut ban”, as pupils didn’t tend to bring in nutty foods in their packed lunches. With this in mind, alarm bells went off for me when we received the new starters’ paper work. Although it was school policy that packed lunches should not include fizzy drinks, sweets or crisps, I could see no mention of any nut free policy.

Opinions vary on whether schools should impose nut bans. The Anaphylaxis Campaign website states there are pitfalls with a nut ban approach, namely:

“It would be impossible to provide an absolute nut-free guarantee so the danger is that allergic children may be led into a false sense of security. There is a strong case for arguing that food-allergic children will gain a better awareness of their allergies, and learn avoidance strategies, if they move in an environment where allergens may turn up unexpectedly.”

Another common argument is that, as children can be allergic to so many different things, it would be unworkable to make a school free of all allergens, and it would be unfair to ban nuts when pupils could have life threatening allergies to a range of other foods.

Michael Pistiner discussed the various pros and cons on the AllergyHome blog recently – see “Nut-free”? Points to ponder.

Preparing for the real world

D will have just turned 4 when he starts school. His awareness of his allergy is growing. We’re about to step up our efforts to instill the importance of not sharing food. However, for now, I’m not confident he would turn down the offer of a chocolate biscuit from a friend.

Back in February, I saw the photo of Amelie King with her eyes swelled closed, having touched peanuts in the playground on her first full day at school. Would D fully appreciate the danger if he put his hand in a glob of peanut butter spilled on a school canteen table? I doubt it.

I would therefore feel a lot happier if his primary school was nut free. I do understand the argument about needing to prepare him for the real world but I think this can come later in childhood. When he’s 18, mummy won’t always be there to help him cross a road, but I’d still hold his hand aged 4. The same goes for keeping him safe from nuts.

Impractical and unfair?

Whilst I see the point that it might not be practical to ban all allergens, if a small child has a life threatening food allergy, there is an argument for banning the allergen, whatever it is, at least from that child’s classroom. A Swindon school banned fish from lunchboxes recently, for this reason.

As regards the “fairness” argument, to me, that’s rather like saying to the 10 people on a sinking ship that as there’s only 5 lifejackets, nobody’s getting one. If school can be made safer at least for some allergic children, is that not a good thing? For children with multiple allergies including nuts, wouldn’t many of their parents be glad of a nut ban, so there’s one less potential killer in the midst?

Other safeguarding possibilities

That said, I have heard about some schools that, whilst not having a “nut ban”, they do put effective measures in place to keep children safe. For example, one mum has told me how her child has two buddies, who sit either side of him at lunchtime. They know not to swap food, not to touch each other and so on.

So we went to the meeting with the preference of a nut ban, but if that wasn’t to be, then ready to discuss safeguarding measures.

School dinners

When we arrived at school, our first port of call was the school kitchen. The manager immediately put our minds at rest and D will be having school dinners from September.

The school works on a two week menu system. The catering company provide an allergen chart for all of the ingredients the school will be using. None of the ingredients on the chart we were shown contained nuts or peanuts.

I have since learned that Cheshire East Council’s policy on nuts is:

“Due to nut allergies becoming more common place Cheshire East Catering has taken the decision to remove nuts from all school kitchens.”

Given D’s allergy, the school would now double check product ingredients labels and also check for “may contain nuts” warnings. If any product ever has a precautionary label, the kitchen will make D a separate meal. They will be sensitive in how this is explained to him, so he doesn’t feel singled out.

We discussed cross-contamination and, if there ever is a “may contain” product being used, the kitchen staff know to make D’s alternative meal in a separate area, with separate utensils etc.

The safety plan

I had prepared a list of questions to ask the school based on the details another nut mum had given me of the risk assessment her son’s school carried out (see Starting school with a nut allergy).

This is what we agreed:

General

  • We will provide the school with at least 2 (and preferably 3) medical kits (each containing an EpiPen, inhaler, spacer and anti-histamine). These will be kept in a classroom cupboard, the staff room and (if we can provide a 3rd kit) in the dining hall.
  • When D goes from his classroom to lunch, his “classroom” meds kit goes with him. Whilst he’s in reception, year 1 and year 2, this is looked after by a teacher. When he’s older, he will carry his meds in a pouch on him during breaks and lunchtime.
  • D’s photo, details of his allergies and emergency plan will be on the wall in the kitchen and the staff room.
  • All staff, including lunchtime assistants, are trained to spot a reaction and what to do in an emergency (administer the EpiPen, call 999 etc).
  • If D has a reaction for example in his classroom, another teacher will go to the staffroom to get the 2nd EpiPen, and vice versa.
  • Classroom equipment (for example, food packets in the home corner) will be vetted to ensure they don’t contain nuts.
  • School are aware of the risk from mouth blown instruments – we will provide his own recorder, for example, if ever needed.
  • All children have their own water bottles on a table in the reception class. D’s will be kept separately, so another child doesn’t use it by accident.
  • Children are encouraged to wash their hands regularly.

Lunch times

  • The children eating school dinners sit at different tables from the children with packed lunches. D’s teachers will arrange for buddies to sit either side of D, who know not to swap food etc.
  • Lunchtime staff will know who D is, where his meds are and are EpiPen trained.
  • Lunchtime staff will wipe down his table before he sits down.
  • Other parents will be advised of the “no nut” policy and asked not to include peanut / nut containing products in packed lunches, given there is a pupil with a life threatening allergy.

Celebrations

  • I will put together a safe treats bag, to be kept at school for any class celebrations.

One thing we didn’t cover, which I need to ask, is that I’m told in advance if there’s going to be a party day, so I can arrange safe food if need be. 

School trips

  • For school trips, the school kitchen provide a packed lunch. I’ve asked for school to please talk to me beforehand to discuss the arrangements for food and his medication kit and to confirm the member(s) of staff who could administer the EpiPen.
  • School have asked that I come along as a helper on trips (which I’m happy to do whilst he’s still little, but appreciate I need to be careful not to cramp his style as he gets older!).

Our homework

So, over the summer holidays, I need to:

  • Put together 2 (preferably 3) medicine kits.
  • Put together a safe snacks box.
  • Obtain up-to-date versions of D’s allergy action plan from our allergy doctors.
  • Obtain a letter from our GP confirming that D cannot eat peanuts or tree nuts (this is required by our Council before they provide a nut free diet).
  • Drum into D two key rules (which I’ve cribbed from another nut mum), namely “1 – don’t eat anything that someone else gives him, 2 – tell the teacher if he feels any sign of a reaction at all”.

Now I just need to persuade him to wear a uniform that doesn’t have Spiderman on it and we’re laughing (well, almost…).

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