Erin Baker: Hunches trumped policy on Amherst’s nut products ban
AMHERST — What would you do if you were on a Wellness Committee charged with improving health outcomes for children with nut allergies? First, you would collect data on the number of children in the district with nut allergies, and for context, the number of children in the district with other food-related illnesses.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.