Peanut allergies topic of board debate

n Members believe district is doing great keeping its students with allergies safe


by Jim Boyle


The Elk River Area School Board has considered the merits of going peanut free in schools.

But after hearing a report on the district’s efforts to safeguard students with various allergies, board members decided enough is being done.

“I think you have done an excellent job,” School Board Director Dan Hunt said. “You have an excellent track record. I don’t know what else we could do other than what we’re doing.”

Few students have had peanut allergy reactions, despite a rising number of the students with peanut allergies. There are at least 129 elementary school students across the district with peanut allergies, according to school officials.

School Board Director Jolene Jorgensen asked if there is a way the district can improve upon what it’s doing.

“That would be the challenge I throw down,” she said.


Riesberg, Miller give food allergy report

Jane Riesberg, the coordinator of health services, and Julee Miller, the general manager of the school district’s food service provider, Sodexo, explained what the district has done in an effort to keep kids with allergies safe.

School officials have gone into classrooms to talk to students about food allergies when students in the class have them. They have made — and revised — posters to raise awareness.

School personnel sometimes use buttons at the beginning of the year to assist cooks spotting students who have allergies. School officials have even labeled special peanut-free tables, otherwise known as allergy aware tables, for students with allergies to sit.

Jane Reisberg (far right) recently explained to the Elk River Area School Board the district’s practices when it comes to dealing with students who have peanut allergies.
Jane Reisberg (far right) recently explained to the Elk River Area School Board the district’s practices when it comes to dealing with students who have peanut allergies.

The district has stopped short of going peanut free, as some school systems have tried with mixed results. A couple fears explained at the recent meeting are “lawsuits” and a “false sense of security.”

When pressed for some possible improvements, Riesberg said she has a couple ideas.

One would be to promote the use of a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds. It has the same consistency of peanut butter but it smells and tastes differently. Field trips is one venue Riesberg said might make sense to try it out.

Another option would be to stop the practice of birthday treats being brought to school and teachers handing out treats as rewards.

“Stickers and pencils could be handed out instead,” Riesberg said.

School Board members didn’t bite, however.

Jorgensen brought the issue of peanut butter allergies to Superintendent Mark Bezek, who put it on the Sept. 13 agenda. Jorgensen brought it up after getting queried by the grandparent of the District 728 student.

She explained to fellow board members the family of this child had concerns their grandchild could accidentally eat something or be exposed to something simply by picking the wrong table mate. As for special tables, they raised a concern for them about the possibility of a student  being ostracized for an allergy.

Board members debated the merits of going peanut free as Riesberg and Miller cautioned the board from it.

“I don’t know that we could ever go peanut free,” Riesberg said. “We’re not the peanut police. We can’t control what comes in a lunch box. If somebody has a Nutter Butter cookie or a Snickers candy bar, there’s not much we can do.”

Riesberg also pointed out the number of allergic reactions has been low in her time with the school district.

“I am starting my 11th year here, and I can recall two or three incidents related to peanuts in the time I have been here,” Riesberg said.

In one case a student who couldn’t resist the temptation of a birthday cookie treat required attention. Riesberg remembers administering an epinephrine injection pen shot to counteract the allergic reaction that fourth- or fifth-grade student was having.

“The student was old enough to know better,” Riesberg said.

The Elk River Area School District has scaled back dramatically on the number of items with peanuts in them and products made in plants where peanuts are processed, Miller said.

The district does, however, still sell Smuckers peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In fact, it sold about 65,000 of them last year to students. That does not count the number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that have come in lunchboxes from homes.

“The average home lunch does,” Miller said. “It’s a pretty cost-effective lunch.”

Riesberg and Miller said families with children who have allergies are dealt with on a one-on-one basis, whether it’s allergies to dairy products, eggs, peanuts or something else.

Steps to protect the children, ranging from buttons to alert staff to the allergy aware tables, are offered to parents, and only provided with their consent. Epinephrine injection tools, often referred to by the brand name EpiPen, are kept in health rooms for when the need arises, Riesberg said. A few students carry them on themselves at the parents’ request, she said.

Riesberg trains cooks on how to administer the epinephrine injection pens at the beginning of every school year in the event a student experiences anaphylaxis. There’s also a health clerk at every building.

Kindergarten can be the toughest grade, because food allergies are new to many students and children with allergies may lack the self control to skip a treat being given to classmates, Riesberg said.

Buttons help, but not all parents want their child singled out in that way, she said.

Either way, “the cooks get to know the students really well,” Riesberg said. “And the kids are all pretty educated.”

School Board Vice Chair Holly Thompson, who volunteers in the Zimmerman-area schools, said she has been impressed with the efforts being made. Last year while volunteering in a kindergarten classroom for one day, she said she was brought up to speed on all the kids with allergies. She said five of 25 students couldn’t have milk.

“They were telling me what to do even though I was only there one day,” she said of her instruction. “It’s taken very serious.”

Jorgensen had questions about the special tables and if that leads to teasing.

Thompson said from her experience, it didn’t appear to be the case. She said the kids seem to have compassion and they are learning about food allergies.

“We all have things about us that make us different and unique,” she said. “I have been impressed with what my kids know about food allergies and how they are protective of their peers.”

School Board members agreed the district was doing a good job and felt comfortable leaving things as they are.