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Ali Wicks-Lim: Sees wide support in Amherst for nut products ban



Sunday, November 17, 2013
AMHERST — I’ve been following the coverage of the Amherst school department’s plan for restricting nuts in the public schools. In a recent Gazette article the district’s perspective was well represented and there was plenty of coverage about the 20 people who’d complained and the outspoken parent who objects. Lacking was a parent’s voice in support of this decision.

This will mean my son is safer and more included in school. It will make him less likely to be targeted by bullies as a perceived outsider. It will mean that he can focus on learning instead of worrying about everything he touches. No one can guarantee his safety, but reducing the chances of coming into contact with a life-threatening substance is a giant step in a healthy direction.

Many families within the 3,000 student Amherst Regional School District are applauding the restriction along with mine. I’ve been touched by the overwhelming support from parents, many whose children share a school with my son. They have experienced “allergy aware” practices.

No one has starved or suffered and most are glad to support a more consistent, wide-reaching approach.

Instead of focusing on the 20 families opposing this step forward, we should turn our attention to the 2,980 embracing it.

In the recent article, parent Erin Baker worries that some children will be “singled out” and “youngsters with special needs and routine-oriented children will find the restriction difficult.” Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, life-threatening food allergies are special needs, too. Children with food allergies have long been singled out, whereas this new practice is responsive to those with specific issues.

Ultimately, this is a small adjustment for most, an issue of preference for some, but for children with allergies a matter of life and death.

Baker’s concerns about monitoring meals is belied by the numerous schools that are successfully managing it. Her claim that there’s “no scientific evidence that (this restriction) will benefit anybody” is misguided.

The rising prevalence of food allergies and evolving strategies for how to manage them haven’t given us enough time to fully evaluate the extent of the benefits of this approach. Common sense indicates that it can only help to increase awareness about food safety and reduce the presence of foods that are life-threatening.

I worry every day about my son’s safety at school. More importantly, so does he. Once he even asked me whether he’ll grow up to be an adult or whether he’ll have an allergic reaction and die as a child. That is more than any 8-year-old should have to handle, let alone balance with learning.

When I am not managing day-to-day safety issues, I worry about the long term. It should be no surprise that children who have been separated from their peers for years are more likely to be bullied than other children. Often the bullying involves food.

The most dangerous time in an allergic child’s life is their teen years because that is when the social issues around their allergies become most significant. Children die because they’re embarrassed to carry their Epi-Pen because peers have made fun of them.

They die because, desperate to feel included, they take a risk with food. Amherst is minimizing the social impact of living with a nut allergy. This will not just make students happier. It will keep them alive.

School is a place of learning, and in making this change we are teachers. We are teaching children to look for ways to be inclusive. That leaving a friend out is not OK. That we are a community and we take care of one another, even when it’s inconvenient, even when it requires education or, yes, a small sacrifice. If my children come out of the Amherst public schools having learned those lessons I will consider them well educated.

Ali Wicks-Lim lives in Amherst and is the parent of two children, one of which attends the Amherst schools. She is a member of the town’s Wellness Committee.