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Erin Baker: Hunches trumped policy on Amherst’s nut products ban

You would go to the Centers for Disease Control to see how dangerous nut allergies are, and find that over the 12 years ending in 2012, the number of school-age children who died of any food allergy (in or out of school) was 24. This implies that the chance of an Amherst child dying of any food allergy over the next 100 years is a bit less than 1 percent. You would compare this with other illnesses, and find that the chance of a child dying from diabetes is about 10 times higher (222 deaths over the same period). You would do the same analysis for the other food-related illnesses.

You would then consider possible policies. You would find that the peer-reviewed literature, the CDC, and Food Allergy Research and Education (the organization used to collect data by the Wellness Committee) all recommend a specific set of policies — that adults be trained to recognize anaphylaxis shock, that Epi-pens be kept on hand and adults trained to use them.

You might consider a more drastic policy, to ban all nut products in school. In researching this, you would note there is no evidence that a ban works. You would see that no leading experts suggest such a ban. You would note that 75 percent of all families eat nut products, and that nuts are a healthy part of children’s diets. A new study, “Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-specific mortality,” found that eating nuts is associated with a 20 percent reduction in deaths.

You would note that children who have other food-related illnesses, illnesses that kill many more children than food allergies, would be hurt by such a ban. You would look into foods that can substitute for nuts and find that most suggested substitutes have no protein; many of the items are highly processed; many of the items, like Oreos, are high in sugar; many of the items, like Cheetos, are high in salt. None of the items are good tasting, cheap, healthy, and convenient like nut products.

Given all of this information, based on the peer-reviewed literature and large data sets, you would conclude that a drastic policy of banning nuts is not justified and recommend that the district follow the sensible policies described above.

That way, the Amherst Regional public schools can protect children with nut allergies without negatively impacting the health and welfare of 75 percent of the children in the district, and without putting an additional burden on children with severe food-related problems. After all, as the writer of a Nov. 16 letter in the Gazette said, we should not take sides over children’s health. We should find solutions that work for all children.

So why did we end up with a different outcome? For an indication, consider a Nov. 13 letter in the Gazette. “Instead of focusing on the 20 families opposing this step forward, we should turn our attention to the 2,980 embracing it,” the writer says. How did she determine that 2,980 families embrace the policy? It appears the number 20 came from an Oct. 22 newspaper article, in which it is reported that “about 20 emails and two phone calls” opposing the ban had been received. This outdated, third-hand number was taken to represent the entirety of the opposition, it appears, and was then subtracted from the number of students in the district to get a factual sounding “2,980.” This is not a valid statistic, it is hyperbole.

Why is this relevant? The writer served on the very Wellness Committee that made the recommendation to ban nuts. Thus, we have evidence that at least one person on the committee is comfortable using anecdotal evidence and unsubstantiated newspaper reports to make a point. Was this kind of unscientific data used, along with emotional appeals, to support a policy that is simply not justified by objective, scientific evidence?

If you are concerned that Amherst has adopted a policy that hurts children with no substantiated benefits, please contact Superintendent Marie Geryk or your school committee representatives.

Erin Baker is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts. To get involved on this issue, email sensiblenutpolicy@gmail.com.

Related

Amherst schools move ahead with nut restrictions

Monday, December 2, 2013

AMHERST — Parents of Amherst schoolchildren are receiving letters this week offering them peanut alternatives and outlining the School Department’s plans for keeping nut products off school grounds beginning Monday. School officials, who had hoped to institute a restriction of nuts and related foods Oct. 15 to protect students who have severe allergies to them, delayed implementation after some parents … 1

Stephen Arons: Guest column got it right on missteps in Amherst’s nut ban

Friday, December 6, 2013

To the editor: Three cheers for Erin Baker’s compelling guest column (Nov. 30) about the new policy that bars nut products from the Amherst schools. It’s a shame when an institution that is supposed to educate children — teach them to be open-minded, to reason and to think critically — does not practice what it teaches. Looks like things have … 4

Comments
Legacy Comments10

Erin Baker: Your Gazette article does not clarify any "facts" related to the accommodation of 100 or so children in the Amherst Public Schools with certified (by the ADA) disabilities that schools are required to accomodate. Would you need to count how many kids are in wheelchairs before you felt OK about putting elevators in for wheelchair bound, certified by the ADA, disabled kids? How is it that you believe that YOU have the "facts" that will "clarify this issue" (you said on the opposition petition that we should look at the gazette article to "clarify the facts") for us all? Did you know that courts have upheld bans on nuts in schools based on ADA requirements? Kurt Geryk

So much misinformation. Where to start? The suggested snacks list [I've seen it too] was a list of nut safe snacks to be shared with parents donating food for classroom celebrations etc. You know, in place of the cupcakes everyone is having such a hard time parting with? It was never intended as a "healthy alternatives to peanuts/ tree nuts" list. That list would be extensive and would include many items that are less expensive than actual nuts and much healthier that typical brands of peanut butter. The Wow Butter samples were offered so that families struggling with picky eaters who needed a peanut butter substitute could try it before buying a whole jar. It was a gesture to those who felt burdened by finding a way to help their children make this transition. The fact that the administration is being criticized for offering a free sample seems pretty petty to me. Calling peanut butter an "affordable healthy snack" is ridiculous. Inexpensive peanut butter is not healthy. It is filled with oils and sugars. Healthy peanut butter is quite expensive. Those peanut butter crackers and granola bars everyone is so in love with are filled with sodium, hydrogenated oils, sugars and corn syrup. Adding nuts to that list of ingredients doesn't make it healthy. Actual nuts are quite healthy, for non allergic people. The are also expensive. Less expensive sources of protein have been widely shared but people would rather recycle the same faulty arguments over and over than look at the alternatives and consider them an option. And finally, someone please show me the study that says that diabetic children die because they don't get nuts at school? The diabetics I know manage to survive just fine with other sources of protein and carbohydrates. I could go on and on but I will stop here for now.

Soy and peanuts are both legumes, due to genetic modifications almost the entire soy crop in the US contains allergens which resemble peanut allergens and a large percentage (40 %) of peanut allergic individuals are allergic to these new soy allergens. It is laughable that the school administrators are suggesting soy products as an alternative to peanuts. Wowbutter is identical in appearance to peanut butter, making policing for nut butter near impossible. On top of this, Wowbutter is quite simply low grade garbage food. There isn't a lot of thought going into this process. The underlying problem with the administrators and parents supporting the ban is innumeracy. Only about 150 people, children and adults, die from all food allergies. It is far more likely for a child to drown, die during transport to school or suffer a TBI playing sports than from an allergic reaction to nuts. Yes, severe allergic reactions are scary, but we have full-time nurses and the epipen to deal with such things without the need for a system wide ban. Perhaps the school system should actually do proper risk assessment rather than react to hysteria.

The ARPS website has a list of "Safe Snacks." Included in this list are Cheetos and Oreos as well as other items: http://www.arps.org/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=3151502 Children with diabetes, eating disorders, anemia, hypoglycemia are all negatively impacted by a nut ban. We can do much more to help kids with nut allergies in the schools, without harming others. Let's find solutions that work for everyone.

I am confused. You provide us with statistical evidence, but then use false analogies to make your case. More children die from diabetes and eating disorders than allergic reactions. True. However, diabetics and anorexics are not dying because they don't have access to peanut butter or nuts. My father is a diabetic who gave up peanut butter because my son is allergic to it, and I can assure you, Ms. Baker, that my dad is alive and well. Also, I'm sure you understand the more complex reasons for why people starve themselves or engage in other forms of self-abuse. I'm sure your research indicates that allergic reactions to nuts and peanuts can - and DO - kill children. Why you ignore this point fills me with sadness because you appear to have no empathy for these young people or their families. Finally, you mention Oreos and Cheetos as possible alternatives to nuts but completely ignore much more nutritious options like sunflower seed butter (known as sun butter). So, while your letter seems to be based on research, you skew it in such a way to make a series of false points. As a parent of a peanut/nut-allergic child, I am truly disappointed.

There have been many letters to the editor on this subject. Many of them imply that people can become ill from not eating nuts. Can you please elaborate what illness is caused by not eating nuts?

Come on. You're just as biased as everyone else. You've chosen to select totally unsubstantiated information while leaving out other information. Who has suggested that Oreos and Cheetos could be a replacement for nuts in a child's diet? In all of these discussions about the nut ban in Amherst, I've seen people suggest hummus, yogurt, beans, etc. But I've never seen Oreos or Cheetos recommended. Who is recommending that as a substitute for nuts? Or did the writer of this article select a detail that would be sure to inflame people?

If you go to the link on the arps website for their safe snack guide you will find Cheetos and Oreos as well as numerous other snacks listed. http://www.arps.org/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=3151502

Faye Bradley, director of student services recently sent out a letter, marketing material and a sample of Wowbutter as a substitute for nut butters. Wowbutter is made from soy and sugar. What's the difference between an Oreo and wowbutter? Oreo is made from flour and sugar, Wow butter is soy and sugar.

Yeah, and the cheap peanut butter that y'all say is what's keeping everyone's budget from breaking is also filled with sugar and hydrogenated oil. So what's your point?

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