Vaughan, Ont., city councillors were understandably scratching their heads last year when a parent complained her Grade 1 daughter’s school failed to designate the school yard a “nut-free space.”
Donna Giustizia insisted four oak trees from a park straddling the school yard be removed because her daughter was allergic to acorns.
Giustizia told council that saplings dropping tree nuts on school property infringed on her daughter’s right to a nut-free space.
In another incident, Toronto-area parent Tony Perfetto looks around the kitchen first thing in the morning wondering what to make his seven-year-old daughter for school lunch.
Perfetto puts together jelly and margarine sandwiches so his daughter complies with a ban in her Grade 1 class, imposed by the school, on eggs, dairy products, peanuts, nut trees, sesame seeds, melon and avocado.
There’s one student in her class allergic to all those food groups. St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic School in September addressed the problem by prohibiting any students from bringing food to school that might trigger a reaction by that child.
And in Hamilton, a mother has filed a human rights complaint against her six-year-old daughter’s school for failing to accommodate the child’s life-threatening allergy to eggs and dairy products.
Lynne Glover pulled her daughter out of Grade 1 class at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School after it refused to ban from its snack list milk and egg products — including puddings, yogurts, cheese, chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and bake sale and pizza days.
Glover says she wants to “bring to light (in her human rights complaint) the fact that children have the right to a barrier-free education. Anything short of that is discrimination.”
These issues raise the contentious debate over what lengths authorities must go and how far must parents sacrifice the health of their children to accommodate a few students?
Eggs, milk, cheese and other diary products are indisputably healthy for the majority of children. And while school is in session for most the year, a good portion of the child’s eating habits will take place at school, making it all the more important that those children are eating healthy.
Parents of a child with life-threatening food allergies are understandably concerned, and shouldn’t be faulted for coming to the defence of their children.
“I can understand it can be frustrating if you don’t have a child with a food allergy,” said Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada. “It’s very difficult to understand that these kids aren’t just being fussy about not eating something. This can do them harm.”
But some experts maintain that imposing prohibition on foods may be getting out of hand, according to a recent report in the National Post.
In commenting on the acorn complaint, “This is ridiculous on too many levels to even engage (in a debate),” said Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School and a critic of nut policies in school.
Vaughan city Coun. Sandra Yeung Racco shares the same view.
“For as many people that may be allergic to acorns, I’m sure there’s a lot of people that are allergic to bees. What are we going to do about that? Are we going to exterminate all the bees?”
Other experts say education is the key in this debate. “My feelings are that we cannot childproof the whole world, we have to world-proof our children,” said Lenore Skenazy, New York author of Free Range Parenting.
“If it is dangerous for some kids to encounter an acorn, those kids have to be taught not to touch them, because there are trees all over, not just near the school,” said Skenazy.
“The best way to keep them safe is to train them to take care of themselves, not to cut down all the trees they may ever walk under anywhere.”
Interestingly, some studies show an increase in allergy prevalence today which Barrie, Ont., immunologist Dr. David Fischer attributes in part on increased consumption of processed food. Now there’s a scary thought.
Fischer is among some experts who questions the wisdom of making schools allergy-free, and points to education as the logical solution. One day, he told the National Post, today’s younger children are going to live in a world with peanuts and cheese. They must learn avoidance skills.
“There’s been a great debate about that and there’s been no resolution,” he said.
Meanwhile, the acorn complaint has since been withdrawn.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.