Columbia Schools Stay On Top Of Food Allergies

Related Story

COLUMBIA - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is giving schools around the nation tips for how to handle food allergies in students - and it's doing this for the first time ever.

The guidelines are voluntary, but were released in response to the rapidly growing number of kids with food allergies. According to the CDC, 4% to 6% of children have food allergies and nearly 88% of schools have at least one child with a food allergy.

Columbia Public School District employees have noticed an increase in the number of students with food allergies. The district sees, on average, 25 students a year with severe food allergies that require special attention and treatment.

"I think every year it just edges up. We get a few more allergies that are more closely defined. That's the other part of it, not only the fact that we are increasing the number of allergies, but also how narrowly defined the restrictions are," said Laina Fullum, the Columbia school's nutrition services director.

"We just know, anecdotally, that the number has increased because our workload has increased," said Fullum.

The CDC's list of guidelines includes how to train teachers and staff to use epinephrine injectors, how to identify students with food allergies and suggests planning school activities around or without common food allergens.

Fullum said that while she is sure the tips released by the CDC will be helpful for some schools, Columbia is already taking its own precautions.

"I think we're ahead of the game because we have two registered dieticians on staff who know exactly all of the allergens that are in every single food. We are organized, we update probably every six months. We have a chef who's working on allergy-free products that are more flavorful and interesting to children and we're also saving money in the long run. I think we are looking in the future far before the CDC has told us to do so," said Fullum.

Every school in the district has an allergy-free line in lunchrooms with fresh, clean foods that provide a healthy option for all students and avoids as many food allergens as possible.

Cafeterias are encouraged to have allergy-free zones where students with certain food allergies are able to eat safely, and lunch line cashiers are computer-alerted every time a student with a food allergy goes through the line. 

"The ladies at the cashiers have to really watch and make sure the kids don't have something harmful on their plates," said Shelly Lee, the Kitchen Manager at Mary Paxton Keeley Elementary School.

CPS administration requires all staff to be trained every year about anaphylactic shock and how to recognize allergic reactions. 

"I was nervous, being a first-time manager. I thought, oh no, because you're taking children's lives in your hands and if they eat the wrong thing, what could happen? Luckily since I've been here, we have not had any allergic reactions that we've had to deal with, but I know that if something were to happen, we'd have it under control," said Shelly.

Fullum said the most common food allergens the district sees include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, strawberries, wheat, gluten, soy and corn. 

She said as the problem of food allergies continues to grow, more options for how schools can handle those allergies will be provided.

"We have to make sure the child is safe; that's our priority. We put a lot of investment in to each child that has a severe allergy. But I do see that more products will come out on the market that will be more advantageous to the student and districts."

Columbia Public Schools provides substitute meals and makes amendments to the lunch menu for all students with allergies that are appropriated on a physicians order.

To find out more about how the Columbia Public School District handles food allergies, click here.