Stories that Endure: Jury out on peanut policy in Amherst schools

Last modified: Wednesday, January 01, 2014
Everybody is concerned about somebody’s health in the Amherst schools and what role nuts and nut products play in that. But that’s where the common ground ends.

Concerns have hardened into two camps. One believes these foods should be kept off school grounds in order to protect those severely allergic from coming in contact with them and suffering potentially deadly reactions. The other says students with eating disorders and other serious health conditions need to eat nuts to survive and there are less restrictive ways to keep allergic children safe.

Each side is passionate and certain it is correct.

The debate was triggered when school Superintendent Maria Geryk announced in October that nuts and nut products would no longer be welcomed on school grounds. It was a decision whose time had come, she said, because as the wellness committee reviewed school safety guidelines it became clear that attempting to clean all surfaces that come in contact with these foods and being ready with epinephrine auto-injectors for severe allergic reactions just weren’t enough. Isolating allergic students at nut-free lunch tables wasn’t acceptable to her.

“We’ve been discussing this for years,” she said shortly before the change went into effect.

She is sincere. But so are those who believe that the superior nutrition values nuts possess are necessary for children with devastating eating disorders or Type 1 diabetes who need numerous high-protein snacks during the day.

There have been disputes over wording: Is this a nut ban or not? A policy or a plan?

And confusion over how it was implemented: Was it the whole wellness committee’s idea or just Geryk and committee Chairman Faye Brady’s decision? Turns out it was Geryk and Brady who concluded that, based on research done by the committee, the schools couldn’t adequately protect allergic students without keeping nut products out.

And then there are questions about the role of the Regional School Committee, which did not raise concerns when Geryk first announced the change but did after some parents complained: Was the topic noted under the right category on the agenda to draw public notice? Did the superintendent have the power to institute this on her own?

Talk about these questions surely will continue as school board members, particularly Shutesbury representative Michael DeChiara, seek to clarify the issues.

Geryk says the change, instituted in late October, has gone smoothly with few incidents of noncompliance, and cooperative responses from the individuals in those cases. She acknowledges that it has been hard to monitor the high school cafeteria, given the large number of students who eat there, and more work may be needed to remind people.

She says she wants to wait until the end of the school year to assess the change and determine how to make it easier for families who have had to alter their children’s lunch and snack diets. But Regional School Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh predicts the topic will resurface when Brady brings a revision of district safety procedures to the board with the next few months. There is no simple solution. Stay tuned.