Tuesday, 11 December 2018 11:47

Food allergies a growing concern for Maine schools Featured

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STATEWIDE - Chances are you know someone with a food allergy. After all, the Centers for Disease Control reports nearly 15 million Americans are allergic to some sort of ingredient.

A growing public safety and health concern, food allergies have changed the way Maine schools operate over the past decade.


One thing that won't be found at Orono's middle and high schools is peanuts.


RSU 26 Food Service Director Ben Jacobson said the entire schools -- not just the cafeterias -- became peanut-free zones about 10 years ago.


"Kids share common space, library, locker room. Might as well make them feel comfortable and safe wherever," Jacobson said.


Jacobson says there are a dozen students and staff with severe nut allergies. To prevent a potentially deadly incident, school officials took a proactive approach.


"It doesn't matter if it's one time, it's somebody's child. You wanna keep them all safe, that's what we're here for," he said.


According to food allergy research and education, about one in 13 American children have some sort of food allergy. That's about two in every classroom and something that staff at RSU 19 see on a daily basis.


"There's nothing on the menu that someone doesn't have an issue with," Nutrition Director David Leighton said. He said that across the district between six and 10 students have some sort of food allergy or intolerance.


At the high school level, the staff serves nut products -- but there's a special peanut-free table set aside in the cafeteria.


"They are young adults. They should be able to be more self-disciplined. They know if they have issues," Leighton said.


But dealing with special dietary restrictions comes at a price.


Leighton said it costs him at least $700 more to meet the specific needs of the students -- money he won't get back.


"The kids come first. It is a financial burden but that's what we have to do," he said.


A Bangor allergist says it is an increasing problem for everybody.


"When you and i were in school a long time ago, it wasn't such a big issue," Dr. Paul Shapero said.


But he says there is a better way to tackle food allergies.


"We're over responding, what we always do, but usually unnecessary to be that extreme," he said. "Rather than shun a good food source, makes no sense, we should be proactive and prevent people from developing that allergy."


He said that to do so, one must start at a much younger age.


"If we introduce staple items like peanut butter to kids under 1 year, we can reduce peanut allergy," he said.


And as for what local school districts are doing?


"It is better to be safe than sorry is what school departments have decided. Hard to argue against that," he said. 

Kayla Fish

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Kayla joined the ABC 7 & FOX 22 news team in May of 2017. She got into journalism because she loves talking with people, and she's incredibly grateful to share the stories of Mainers throughout the region.

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