Is there a place for peanuts?

Posted on: Sun, 02/06/2005 - 8:19pm
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Joined: 10/05/2002 - 09:00

Posted on Mon, Feb. 07, 2005

Is there a place for peanuts?

Teen's death raises profile of severe food allergies, even as schools try to reduce risks


Staff Writer

Sandra Price lost her daughter last month to a severe peanut allergy.

Now she and others are asking for help to save others like 14-year-old Gina Hunt.

Price wants restaurants to post signs warning patrons if their food might contain peanut products or traces.

She's also asking schools and parents to be aware that peanut allergies are much more deadly than most other food allergies, and to be cautious when offering food to children.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools already are planning action that would eliminate peanuts from its cafeterias over the next school year.

Gina, a Concord middle-schooler, died from a violent allergic reaction to peanuts after eating a fried egg roll in a mall's Chinese restaurant. She was on a shopping trip with a friend and wasn't carrying the medication that could have saved her life.

Price knows Gina should have had her EpiPen, a shot of epinephrine that would have reduced the effects of a severe reaction. But as teenagers are prone to do sometimes, Gina forgot it. She also forgot to ask whether the restaurant used peanut products.

Restaurants aren't required to post signs, but if that fast-food stop at Concord Mills had indicated it used peanuts and peanut oil, Gina might have lived, her mother said.

"Just maybe -- just maybe -- it could have helped," Price said.

Now Price and her family want to alert other parents that it's not a good idea to bring peanut-based treats to the classroom.

Gina's aunt, April Realmuto, said she always checks with teachers before bringing goodies.

"When I volunteer, that's the first thing I ask: `Are any of the children allergic to any foods?' " said Realmuto, who lives in the Clover, S.C., school district.

Some children, like Gina, are so allergic to peanuts that they suffer severe reactions if they're just in the same room with a peanut product. Even something that doesn't contain peanuts can trigger a fatal reaction if it is prepared in a container that previously held peanuts.

Peanuts are the leading killer of all the food allergens, according to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, a national nonprofit education and advocacy group. Anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening reaction, in which blood pressure drops and airways close. It's what happened to Gina.

School district policies

As allergies have become more common, school systems in the Charlotte region and nationwide have taken steps to reduce the risk.The Charlotte-Mecklenburg system is drafting a policy that, during 2005-06, would work toward eliminating peanut products from all cafeterias, said school nutritionist Amy Harkey.

"We are eliminating peanut butter and peanut butter desserts and are currently testing SunButter, made of sunflower seeds," Harkey said. The sunflower butter is made in a peanut-free facility, she said.

The district doesn't allow any homemade treats to be brought to school, for both sanitation and allergy reasons, she said.

Most districts, such as Mooresville, Gaston, Cleveland and Cabarrus, don't ban peanuts entirely. Some take action on a piecemeal basis.

"In some cases, we have just banned peanut products in the classroom; other times we have asked the whole grade level not to bring peanut products. Most parents are very understanding, but some have questioned the policy," said Principal Melanie McKenzie of Lakeshore Elementary School in Mooresville.

At least in one Charlotte-Mecklenburg and one Mooresville school, all peanut products have been pulled from the cafeteria menu because of extremely allergic students.

A worried mom's question

In Cabarrus County, where Gina attended school, peanuts are not served along with meals but are offered individually in desserts, sealed in plastic wrap.

"We have taken our lead from the allergy network (FAAN), that it is impossible to create a peanut- or nut-free environment," said Rita Greene, child nutrition director for the Cabarrus schools. "Saying the environment is peanut-free gives a false sense of security, when we can't guarantee (a student) is safe."

Brooke Powell of Huntersville, who read about what happened to Gina, said she worries about her highly allergic daughter.

Bennett, who's 5, will start kindergarten in August in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Powell is concerned she'll be exposed to peanuts.

"What's in the cafeteria? Do they label? And how aware are the teachers?" she asked. "I worry about her enough at preschool, but going into a big school and being a small child, if she has a reaction, is anyone going to notice?"

Help people understand

Educating people about allergies is the answer, most say."Our hearts go out to (Price) ," said Howard Valentine with the American Peanut Council. "For a parent who finds out their child has an allergy, it's a helpless feeling."

The council has spent more than $5 million in the past several years on allergy education and research, said Valentine, the council's director of technology and executive director of its research foundation.

The council works closely with FAAN. Valentine said there needs to be "a lot more education" of restaurants on labeling of food.

If Gina had been at school, she might have been safer. An EpiPen is kept in the school nurse's office. Area school systems have trained staff and set up emergency plans for students who are severely allergic to peanuts or bee stings, another especially dangerous allergy.

In Cabarrus County, each school has its own nurse to handle such situations.

"We're really the glue that holds it together," said Jan Odell, the county's school health program director.

Some protest the amount of attention given to peanut allergies. At some schools in the Charlotte region, parents even demanded that their kids be allowed to bring peanut-butter sandwiches, despite other students who have severe allergies.

Price acknowledges taking action on peanuts is often controversial, because peanuts and the beloved peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich are so popular with children.

"I want to make it clear we're not saying, `Ban peanuts,' " she said.

"We want to educate people, so when they hear there's a peanut-allergic child, they will understand: This is a life." -- STAFF WRITERS KATHRYN WELLIN AND APRIL BETHEA CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE


Learn More

To find out more about peanut allergies and other food allergies, check the Web site for the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network: [url=""][/url]

To connect with area efforts to get restaurant food-labeling signs, send e-mail to [email][/email].

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