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What’s the Difference Between a Nut Free School and a Nut Aware School?

Kids eating school lunch - nut free school vs nut aware school

Nut free school vs nut aware school… And, which one is better?

With allergies to peanuts and tree nuts rising, there is a pressing need for more allergen advocacy and for certain protection policies to be created in schools. Every child, parent, student, and teacher needs to come together to create an environment of safe and equal opportunity for the whole of the classroom. According to FARE’s (Food Allergy Research & Education) Food Allergies in the Classroom page:

One in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom, has a food allergy.

The call to action is clear, but unfortunately, what that call to action looks like is at times controversial. Studies on the efficacy of Nut Free Schools vs Nut Aware Schools might surprise you. Whether or not one is better than the other will come down to your personal needs. Whatever is best for you and your family may look different than what’s best for another nut allergic family. Read on to learn about the different paths available to you. Whatever you end up prioritizing, you’ll want to have it formally written inside a legally binding 504 Plan.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about 504 Plans, check out our article Does My Child Need a Nut Allergy 504 Plan? Spoiler Alert: The answer is yes.

Table of Contents

What Does It Mean When a School Considers Itself a Nut Free School?

Every school policy will differ. There is no nationally recognized criteria for what it means to be a Nut Free School. Policies will largely depend on what is arranged with families of children suffering from severe food allergies. You will need to read up on the particular policy of your individual school to see what the title of Nut Free means. There are little things here and there that might differ. The main thing to know is a Nut Free School will typically enforce some type ban on nuts, peanuts, and tree nuts.

For the parents of students without food allergies who are enrolled into their first nut free classroom, tree nuts include but are not limited to: Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, filberts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. While, peanuts are actually considered a legume.

The strictness of the school policies might vary. For instance, some nut free schools may allow certain children to eat nuts under special circumstances as long as it is done at a designated nut table. It would be the reverse to the more popular nut free table. Instead of the children with food allergies having an allergen free table, the kids sitting at the alienated table would be the kids who voluntarily brought nuts to school. This feels like a big perk to families that are concerned with their child being singled out. I do want to point out the difference between a nut free school and a nut free classroom. You can still have a nut free classroom while keeping the rest of the school nut-aware. Read on to learn more about what that means.

Most Nut Free Schools Will Prohibit Nuts Inside School Premises, Period.

Some schools have policies against any children being able to eat nut products at all, not even at a designated nut table. Should they accidentally be brought to school, they would be sent home with a note from the teacher stating the food provided would not be allowed, with the food intact.

The reason for a call on a ban for nuts instead of milk (which is the actually the most common allergen), is because nuts are the allergen that most likely to cause a life threatening allergic reaction. Allergic reactions often cause a life threatening state of shock called anaphylaxis. It typically needs immediate medical attention. Since there is no cure for an allergic reaction, the best way to avoid anaphylaxis is through prevention of exposure.

For birthday parties, nut free schools may require shareable snacks to be pre-packaged with labels that reveal each snack to be “made in a dedicated facility free from nuts”. Or, as an alternative to celebrating birthdays with food, classrooms could celebrate in other ways like getting  extra recess time, playing games, arts, crafts, etc. All policies from nut free schools can also be applied to creating a nut free classroom in a Nut Aware School.

What Are Nut Aware Schools? What Does the Term Nut Aware Mean?

Nut Aware Schools typically don’t place a ban on nuts. Instead, they allow nuts, but heavily discourage them. Or, they advocate for education. They put an emphasis on preventing cross contamination through proper handling of food and proper hygiene, i.e., washing hands before school, washing hands during lunch, and not sharing food. Nut Aware Schools will typically have a nut free table.

This would be in contrast to Nut Free Schools. Nut Aware Schools will typically provide a nut free table and it can be disheartening to see a child with allergies separated from the rest of their class. You can put it inside your 504 Plan that your child is allowed to invite a friend to sit with them at the nut free table provided everyone’s lunch at the table is free of nuts. It’s not ideal to have to self isolate. But, keep reading as to hearing the pros and cons of the different styles in nut free tables (Nut Aware School) vs nut tables (Nut Free School).

While a Nut Aware School will allow it’s students to eat nuts, they might take nuts off their own menu. Schools that are nut aware could make arrangements with their vendors to ensure that every product the school provides will be nut free and school safe (free from the top eight most common allergens). If all of the options available are not nut free, a nut aware school would most likely be obligated to always provide at least one nut free option, made and prepared following proper protocol to avoid cross contamination. All of this can be sorted out in your individual 504 Plan if your school hasn’t yet implemented a particular policy.

Schools that identify themselves as “Nut Aware” will usually ask for the parents of every child, whether they are allergic to nuts or not, to consider peanut and tree nut alternatives when planning individual packed lunches. The same encouragement goes for any snack eaten inside school premises. Typically, if a celebratory treat is sent to school with an intended purpose of being shared, that snack will be required to be free of peanuts or nuts, and also packaged in labeling that confirms the snack is nut free. Nut Aware schools are likely to have a ban on home baked goods, but again, it also depends on a particular school’s policy. Please make sure you inform yourself of your own school’s rules and regulations as I do not and cannot represent any particular policy or school.

A Nut Aware School (as well as a Nut Free School) should both offer training services. Teachers, students, and administrators should all receive training on how to recognize anaphylaxis and it’s warning signs.  Teachers and staff should receive training on how to administer an epinephrine auto-injector — such as an EpiPen — to a child. How EpiPens are stored on school property should be indicated in your individual 504 Plan. Do you want to fight for the right of your child to take it with them from classroom to classroom? Do you want Epipens stored in the nurse’s office? Or maybe you want both? Will there be an EpiPen on the bus?

Each school will provide its own set of guidelines and tips for how they want to approach reducing exposure to allergens. Pair it with your personal 504 Plan to adapt their policy to meet what’s required for your specific accommodations.

Why Does It Matter? Why Is It Necessary to Change School Policy?

As stated previously in this article, FARE statistics indicate “One in 13 children, or roughly two in every classroom, has a food allergy.” The potential severity of every food allergy is somewhat ambiguous as many food allergies can become life threatening over time. All children who have a food allergy are at risk of developing a severe life threatening reaction to their allergen. If exposure to a food allergen triggers an anaphylactic attack, the child will be in serious danger. Anaphylactic attacks send the body into a state of shock and require immediate medical intervention. Because there is no cure available, the best medicine is prevention. Unfortunately, severe allergic reactions can also occur from cross-contamination! This is why collective accommodation is the best way (and really the only way) to create a welcoming environment for children who have severe nut allergies.

Watch out for Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination could occur when peanut or tree nut particles are transferred from the hands of someone who had recently eaten nuts into the hands of a child with a severe allergy to nuts. Additionally, cross contamination can occur at factories when products that are seemingly nut free are made on the same equipment that produces peanuts and tree nuts. If a chef is preparing a sandwich for a child with allergies, they must use completely different kitchen equipment than when they prepared a recipe that called for nuts. If a chef uses the same knife for peanut butter as they did to prepare a turkey sandwich, that will expose a child who has a nut allergy to severe cross contamination and an allergic reaction that could require medical intervention.

Is There a Difference in Protection Policies Between Private Schools and Public Schools?

Any school or school program that receives federal funding must follow the rules laid out in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is a civil rights law which protects against the discrimination of people with disabilities. To read more on Section 504, specifically in reference to children with severe food allergies, see FARE’s Section 504 and Written Management Plans page. Children with life threatening food allergies such as allergies to peanuts and tree-nuts are protected under section 504. But, according to FARE’s page directly above, private schools may be exempt. It all depends on whether or not they receive federal funding. Even so, private schools that are exempt from upholding section 504 are still likely to work with you to create a care plan if you reach out to administration, especially while your child is young. 

If sending your child to a private school is important to you, still try to negotiate a plan with your child’s principal and teacher.  Tell them what is important to you and be willing to walk away from the school and withdraw your child if they aren’t willing to accept your non-negotiables. If you want your child to attend a specific private school for religious reasons, allow yourself to shop around. 

However, if your child attends a public school it will be required for them to set up a 504 Plan should you choose to pursue it (you should). In order to create a 504 Plan, you’ll first have to qualify. If your child is at risk for anaphylaxis, you will want to get a doctor’s note full of suggested accommodations. Once you do, you’ll be able to lay down a legally binding protection plan. You should be aware that according to the FARE’s School Guidelines, each state will have its own policies regarding food allergy management. Each 504 Plan will be specific to your child and school. It’s purpose of protection is in enforcing equal rights to a safe and equal education.

What Are the Results of Each Preventive Policy?

Here’s where it gets a little confusing. It becomes a matter of what makes the most sense for your particular family. One might assume schools that create a ban on peanuts and tree-nuts would create the safest environment for children with nut allergies. But, according to a study — entitled Impact of school peanut-free policies on epinephrine administration — by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, epinephrine (such as EpiPens) was used more in Nut Free Schools than it was in Nut Aware Schools and there is no evidence to support the theory that Nut Free Schools are safer. In terms of safety, children actually had more allergic reactions inside the Nut Free Schools. The Anaphylaxis Campaign also discourages creating bans because they believe it could lead children into a “false sense of security.” The problem is that schools can’t really guarantee that all food will always be nut free or made inside dedicated peanut and tree-nut free facilities. When nut bans are strictly enforced, children with food allergies could become overly trusting of their environments, which in turns lead to allergen exposure. Even when parents of other children are doing everything they can to follow nut free policies, mistakes are likely to occur now and then. Or even if the parents never make a mistake, visitors will be coming in and out at different times and could bring in cross-contamination unknowingly.

The article Nut-free lunch? Parents speak out by University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital was deeply fascinating and I recommend you spend a moment reading the report. According to the national poll on children’s health, the accommodation that was most supported by the parents of food allergic children was in wanting no restrictions for where their child could sit during lunch. The concern comes from children needing to self isolate as it can cause children anxiety and social harm. One of the theories of a Nut Free School was that food allergic children wouldn’t have to self isolate. Unfortunately, the study by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reported that allergen safe tables were effective in decreasing the use of epinephrine (Bartnikas L, 2017). So, isolating at lunch did make a difference. Although socially unpleasant, separate lunch tables were effective in preventing exposure to an offending allergen and appear as the least risky way to handle potential allergen exposure at lunch.

A popular argument against nut bans is that bans give students a false sense of security. There is also the argument that a ban gives children a false sense of security outside the classroom. I think so much depends on age. As children grow, yes, they will need to become their own advocate. But until then, they need to be protected.

A Nut Free Classroom and a Nut Aware School might provide the best of both worlds but please, do consider your own personal needs and read this article for brainstorming purposes, not for legal advice.

Summary for Nut Free Schools vs Nut Aware Schools

Regardless of what kind allergen policy you decide to pursue, you need to make sure you’re still educating your child on the dangers of sharing food with their classmates. Nut Free Schools reduce the amount of allergens in the classroom, but they don’t guarantee a nut free environment. When you’re ready, call up your child’s school and create a specialized 504 Plan. Even if your child belongs to a private school that doesn’t receive federal funding, call up their school’s office and say you are looking to set up a 504 Plan. See our article Does My Child Need a Nut Allergy 504 Plan? for common questions and helpful resources. Although some private schools are not required by law to provide accommodations, many private schools are. And, if they reject your request, you can at least begin a conversation and create a food care plan. May every student know what it feels like to feel protected, accommodated, and safe in their own classroom. You got this!