McMaster-led study recommends against food bans in schools

By: Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator
New guidelines from a McMaster University-led panel of researchers recommend against banning foods, such as peanuts and milk products, at schools.
Instead, schools should focus on training staff to manage food allergies and stock epinephrine autoinjectors on-site to treat anaphylaxis, rather than requiring kids to supply their own.
“A lot of schools have adopted a policy of having either a site-specific ban, like no peanuts, no tree nuts, or a ban within certain classrooms or certain tables within a lunchroom,” said guidelines panel chair Dr. Susan Waserman, an allergist and professor of medicine at McMaster University. “The evidence was not there to support that this was a consistently good method of cutting down on allergic reactions within the school.”
The panel of national and international experts — the first of its kind — recommends that food-allergic children have an “anaphylaxis action plan” and that staff be able to recognize allergic reactions and know how to treat them. Lunchtime supervision, handwashing and table sanitization are also important, the panel found.
Currently, there is a law stating that every school board in Ontario must have must have an anaphylactic policy. But there is no provincewide standard for managing allergies in school, Waserman said.
“There’s a lot of variability across the schools,” she said.
Waserman said prohibiting allergen-restricted zones, such as “milk-free tables” in a cafeteria, can make school a more equitable place for kids with allergies.
“The positive aspects of a lot of this, we saw, was for the quality of life of the affected child so that they wouldn’t have to feel that they’re always eating on their own or isolated,” she said. “It would also allow non-food-allergic children to be able to have more flexibility, as well.”
According to the guidelines, there are some circumstances — such as classrooms with children who are cognitively or physically impaired or too young to self-manage — where allergen-restricted zones might be necessary.
“That’s the important part about guidelines: they’re contextual and you need to adapt them to your situation,” Waserman said. “This is not meant to be gospel for everybody.”