Food allergy solutions in school

08/09/2011  |  Sarah McCurdy
Fitness and Nutrition

Peanut butter is as American as baseball and mom’s apple pie – it’s engrained in American culture. But the seriousness of potentially deadly nut allergies means there are children who have never been able to smell or taste peanut butter. With the growing number of children who have allergies, peanut butter is becoming less likely to show up on a school’s daily food menu.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of students with food allergies is increasing, as is the number of schools that have food allergy policies in place. Each year in the U.S., it is estimated that anaphylaxis to food results in 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the USDA requires schools to meet special dietary needs for students with food allergies. When food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening reactions, the dietary substitutions prescribed by the licensed physician must be made by the school district. On January 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act (FAAMA), which requires federal guidelines on how to manage and prevent food allergies and anaphylaxis in U.S. schools.

Still, school districts around the U.S. handle the modifications in different ways. In 2002, the Fargo School District in Fargo, N.D. was the first school to introduce sunflower butter called SunButter, a peanut butter alternative to its students.

When Deb Laber, Nutrition Services Director for the Fargo School District, started her position in 2004, the district had four special diets. Today, Laber helps monitor food for the district’s 10,000 students, including 50 students who require 22 different types of special diets. Gluten free diets make up 60% of the district’s modified diets; lactose intolerant diets make up 30% and 10% is labeled “other,” which includes nut allergies.

“We want to do the best we can for our students,” Laber says. “I have the funding to provide that. I know there are schools that are not going out of their way.”

Laber says allergies seem to be more prevalent, whether they are new problems or stronger diagnoses. Ten years ago she didn’t see gluten free diets and says nut allergies have become much more common.

Helping students who require modified diets requires a team approach, especially when the effects could be life threatening. Laber works with the district dietician, kitchen staff, school nurses, principals, parents and students. Special attention is focused on making sure the students still fit in with their peers.

“It’s important that the students don’t stand out as having a special need – we want them to fit in and try to serve them a similar food to what the other students are having that day,” Laber says. “There’s a lot of stress on youngsters and we want to do the best we can for them.”

When it comes to using sunflower seed butter, a peanut butter alternative, Laber sees it as a way to keep her customers happy and provide a balance. She thinks it’s important to provide an alternative to a product that some students can’t have.

On a national level some schools make their buildings peanut free and remove all peanuts and peanut products from their menus.

Laber has a few schools in her district that are “peanut safe.” While all schools in the district offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once a week, in the four peanut safe schools, they serve only sunflower seed butter as a spread and don’t have peanut butter or peanut products in the kitchen at all. All 19 of the K-12 buildings in the district provide peanut butter and sunflower seed butter every day as a choice.

Due to the increase in the nut allergy population, a division of Red River Commodities in Fargo, N.D. began a two-year project to develop a substitute for peanut butter that would be made out of sunflower seeds. The project was part of a partnership with the USDA, and the result is a sunflower seed spread called SunButter.

Since its launch a decade ago, SunButter has especially gotten the attention of mothers of children with nut allergies. The company’s products are completely peanut-free, tree-nut free and gluten-free and are processed in a peanut-free and tree-nut free facility, making them an excellent choice for people with peanut allergies or gluten intolerance. 

“Peanut butter is in our DNA,” says Dan Hofland, vice president of marketing for SunButter. “You don’t see that in France or the U.K. or anyplace else – they could care less. But here, if you can’t have peanut butter, what are you going to do?”

Compared to the nutrition value of peanut butter, SunButter is an alternative that has health benefits. SunButter products have a much higher iron and fiber content than peanut butter, and provide protein. They have one-third less saturated fat and 27% of a day’s recommended allowance of vitamin E.

“People in school lunch care so much about kids that if one student needs to have something done, it’s very common for school lunch people to bend over backwards for them,” Hofland says. “They are very willing to help.”

Since the Fargo School District added SunButter in 2002, more districts have added it to their school lunch programs, including schools that have decided to be peanut-free and tree-nut free.

Sarah McCurdy is a storycatcher and freelance writer. She has experience writing in a variety of fields, including radio, television, advertising, print, web and public relations. She spent six years at an NBC/CBS affiliate, covering a variety of stories and was nominated for a regional Emmy in 2009. Currently she contributes to magazines and newspapers, takes on client projects, and manages a blog at
Comments & Ratings

  8/28/2011 9:18:06 PM

Nice reporting 
Thank you for reporting on a subject I have a lot of experience on! I love reading that I'm not the only person in the world that has to deal with a severe food allergy for my daughter. I found it ironic that the wording at the end says how common it is for school lunch people to "bend over backwards" to help accommodate students with food allergies. That term is used in such a positive way here, but it's been used in such a negative way describing "all" the things my school's staff is doing and how they go out of their way to ensure my little 2nd grader can attend school without coming in contact with milk/dairy food left overs. Her milk allergy is so severe, she can go into anaphylaxis after touching (then accidentally touching her mouth) residue left over from cheese crackers, pizza cheese grease, yogurt spilled and smeared, etc. It's hard to get a school to look at that type of severe milk allergy in the same way they do this type of peanut/nut allergy! This was such a positive article. Just what I needed to read to empower me not to give up and to continue fighting to educate the people that take care of my child each day! Peanut allergies are leading the way to help other severe, less heard about, food allergies! Thank you!