A few weeks ago I went to the first meeting of the Food Allergy Support Group of Northern Virginia. Kudos to Allison and Jane for getting a support group going. If you are looking for a support group in the Northern Virginia area please check out the yahoo group. They are also working on getting a website up.
The first meeting featured a speaker: Penny McConnell the Director of Nutrition Services for Fairfax County Public Schools. And I have to say if your child is attending Fairfax County Public Schools they are receiving a nutritious and kid friendly lunch. It was evident that Ms. McConnell has worked hard at creating a menu of nutritious options, no trans fats and yes they have worked on being allergy conscious. There are a number of things I felt they were doing right:
1. Menus as well as ingredient lists for all foods are posted on the Fairfax County Public schools website along with other nutritional information.
2. Peanut butter sandwiches are no longer made on site. Instead they come pre-wrapped. They did this to prevent cross-contamination of other food being served in the cafeteria. *There is a caveat to this, see below.
There were a number of things that raised my eyebrows:
1. It sounded to me that children who forget to bring lunch or lunch money are provided lunch by the PTA. Though this is handled in a number of ways (one parent said her PTA footed the bill, then asked the parents to reimburse); for most schools this means the PTA buys a big tub of peanut butter and bread and a peanut butter sandwich is made for the kid which defeats the purpose of the pre-packaged Smuckers sandwiches. Ms. McConnell says she tries to discourage this but this is what the culture currently is.
2. One person commented that the children at her local school wash the tables at the end of each lunch session. From a Montessori perspective I can understand this; making children responsible for cleaning up after themselves, making them accountable is not a bad thing in itself. The parent expressed that it made her nervous because she felt an adult would do a better job in cleaning the tables than a child. This is true. What most people don't realize it that allergens are not like germs. They are not "killed" by bleach or other cleaning agents because they are not alive in the way germs are. Allergens need to be washed away with soap and water.
3. The school system had been approached by a religious organizations regarding pork products on the school menu and have eradicated "most" pork products including gelatin. Not to be disrespectful of religions that refrain from pork products but I found it a little odd that they won't serve a prepackaged jello cup because it might cross contaminate other food but they will continue to serve peanut butter even though the cross contamination from that could kill someone.
4. Nutrition Services is just in charge of what is SERVED and have probably done what they can to minimize a reaction. When it came down to the discussion of hand washing, washing tables, or anything that that had to be dealt with on site, Ms. McConnell said it was up to the school. In her own words she said "The principal is the QUEEN of the school." Fairfax County Public Schools do have guidelines as well as responsibilities checklists for everyone from the administrator to the student. Also the food allergic child would need to set up an IHCP (Individual Health Care Plan) with the school nurse. (Interestingly enough when I toured our local public school none of these things were brought up, even though I asked about food allergy procedures) However, when it comes to setting up a nut free table or having students wash hands after eating, it is up to the principal. In other words if the principal doesn't think your child warrants a safe place to eat she doesn't have to provide one.
5. There was a provision on one web page of the public schools which I found interesting. Here is the quote:
"Students with milk allergies require a statement from a recognized medical authority. It is not necessary for a new statement to be secured each year. In these cases, fruit juice will be offered as a substitute."
So if you have a milk allergy you better have proof. Do they think parents make up allergies? Why is milk the only one you need a statement for? I just found it quirky.
I know I am being a little snide with all this and have decided not to pursue public school for Max in any case. Our decision for this has less to do with food allergies and more to do with what kind of learning environment he needs right now. I realize I am lucky enough to be able to make that kind of decision. So please, criticize my criticism, I probably deserve someone pushing back on me a little.
Oh yeah, and every Friday at all Fairfax County Public Schools, they serve pizza. It is apparently a popular thing here. So tell me, does your school have Pizza Friday? I guess I shouldn't be surprised, in Wisconsin they serve fish on Fridays. Thoses darn Catholics.