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Food allergies in schools on the rise
During this back-to-school season, parents are addressing the issue of food allergies and are counting on local school districts to provide a safe atmosphere along with safe food in the lunch room.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in 2007, 3.3 million Americans were allergic to peanuts or tree nuts such as walnuts, pecans, almonds or cashews and 6.9 million were allergic to seafood. That's an 18-percent increase since 1997.
Four of every 100 students have a food allergy, according to the CDC, and several local school districts have noticed the same trend.
In Pickerington, there are six students currently registered with Celiac disease, which requires a gluten, or wheat-free diet. The district also has approximately 160 students with varying levels of peanut allergies, and a number of other students with different allergies and special dietary needs.
Food Service Director Judy Riley said she has noticed the increase in reported food allergies that is being reported nationwide.
During the past 10 years, Reynoldsburg City Schools has seen an increase as well in the number of students with reported food allergies and special dietary needs, Food Service Director Connie Fatseas said.
Peanut is the most common food students are allergic to in the district, Fatseas said, but the district also has students with fruit allergies such as strawberries and peaches, allergies to eggs and multiple allergies such as soy, milk and cheese.
Combinations of food allergies is common in young students, and children with food allergies are two to four times more likely to also have asthma and other allergies as children without food allergies, according to the CDC.
The eight most common food allergies, which account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions, are cow's milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat.
Bexley Schools provides a peanut-free zone for students in cafeterias and, like Reynoldsburg and Pickerington, have point of sale computers where students swipe their lunch cards and the screen alerts workers to any reported allergies.
All three districts work with parents to make certain that students are receiving the food nutrition they need for a productive school day while remaining safe from food that is dangerous to their health.
Riley said Pickerington is working on a plan to pre-package lunch products that will address the special needs of children with food restrictions - making it another choice and not a special item the child has to request.
Currently, the proposed vendor does not provide an option that meets all of the age-appropriate USDA requirements for a balanced meal, Riley said. These requirements limit the amount of fat and saturated fat as well as set calorie and nutrient levels.
Meeting these requirements while substituting alternate food products is a challenge for most school districts.
Riley said if she can work with other districts to participate in an ordering program, the districts will be able to have boxes made that meet these specific requirements and qualify for the federal lunch program reimbursement.
This is only a temporary solution for Riley, who said her ultimate goal is to create and produce unique items in the Pickerington kitchens that will satisfy the dietary needs of students and staff while being appealing and appetizing.
In Reynoldsburg, Fatseas relies on the nurse and cafeteria workers in each school building to know the special needs of their students.
In Bexley, James Anderson, food service director for Bexley Public Schools, says the district is an exception to the national trend.
He said the percentage of students who have food allergies has remained steady during the 29 years he has been with the district.
Each year, parents are asked to provide an updated food allergies or dietary restriction form to the school building where their children are enrolled. Forms are available in the school office or by calling the school.
Pickerington and Bexley both manage the information through a food service director in a central location. In Pickerington, Eating and Feeding Evaluation: Children with Special Needs forms are available online at www.pickerington.k12.oh or parents are welcome to call (614) 833-3645 to discuss their child's specific needs.
Bexley parents are encouraged to call the food service director's office in the school board office at (614) 231-7611 to inform the district of any restrictions.
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