Your Picky Eater Doesn't Have The Same Rights As A Child With Food Allergies

by Erin Pepler
Originally Published: 
A picky eater small girl eating lunch at school

When an Ontario mother initiated a petition at her daughter’s elementary school, I didn’t consider it an extraordinary instance. But the subsequent debate, on the other hand, blew my mind.

The petition wasn’t about Sex Ed, religion or even the “new math.” Nope, it was about peanut butter, and it was absolutely infuriating.

Alyssa Holstock of Waterloo, Ontario fought to reverse a ban on peanuts at her child’s elementary school—an unjust rule, she claims, because her young daughter is a picky eater. The ban prevents her from packing a lunch that her child will eat, resulting in a tired, hungry kid coming home at 3:00 pm. The solution? She should be able to send in nut products, which her picky child will happily consume. (She promises to label them, of course.)

Let’s take a minute to let that sink in.

A mother is fighting for the right to send peanut products to her kid’s school, knowing that those same products could be a death sentence for other children in the class. She feels entitled to do so not because her child requires a specific diet for medical reasons, but because her child is a picky eater.

In short, she’s willing to put children’s lives at risk in order to accommodate the preferences of her kindergartner.

I am outraged by the mere idea of this, and my kids don’t even have food allergies.

As parents, it’s our job to advocate for our children. As decent human beings, we should support each other in protecting and caring for the kids in our communities. We do this by slowing down when driving in school zones or, more generally, by not doing things that could kill children. Food allergies are not a choice—they’re a random, terrifying medical condition. Peanut allergies affect roughly 2 in every 100 kids here in Canada. Think about those numbers—if your child goes to a school with 1000 kids, roughly 20 of them have a peanut allergy. Many of these allergies could be severe or even life-threatening, and peanuts are a frequent culprit. Avoidance is critical to the safety of these children, and as responsible adults, we should support their well-being by packing allergen-free school lunches. This goes not only for the parents of kids with food allergies but for ALL individuals.

Life-threatening food allergies take precedence over food preferences, always.

Picky eating isn’t a condition your child has; it’s a behavior.

And it’s a hell of a lot easier to deal with than anaphylactic shock.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to children who actually have sensory issues or feeding-based medical challenges.

So your kid “lives on” peanut butter sandwiches and won’t eat anything else? That’s challenging, but guess what? Peanut butter makes a great after-school snack in your home, where you’re free to do as you please. Get on Pinterest or Instagram and find some new lunch ideas. You’re going to need them, and eventually, your kid will adapt to nut-free lunches. In the meantime, feed them an amazing breakfast and have some great after-school snacks ready.

Trust me, they’ll survive in between.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments from the “pro-nuts” side, often centering around the idea that the world isn’t nut-free and therefore allergy-affected children should learn to adapt/manage their contact with nuts. After all, how will they survive “the real world” if they’re coddled in elementary school?

Well, let’s talk about small kids for a second because it appears that the people making this argument are unfamiliar with them.

In Ontario and other parts of Canada, kindergarten students can be as young as 3.5 years old at the start of the beginning of the school year. My own son was three when he started Junior Kindergarten a few years ago, and I can tell you right now that his listening skills were far from perfect. No matter how smart, caring or well-behaved a child may be, there is no denying that the maturity of a three-year-old is limited. My son isn’t allergic to peanuts, but if he were, I couldn’t guarantee that he’d follow a protocol designed to avoid contact with them. If there were nuts in his school, he’d probably interact with them at some point. Maybe he’d be excited or distracted or just plain rebellious—any of those are possible—but I’m sure it would happen.

Or what if his friend was the one with the nut allergy?

Would my son be able to eat a peanut butter sandwich and then safely play with that classmate? Absolutely not, because small children are notoriously awful at washing their hands and faces. Even if they went to a sink and cleaned up with soap, there’d likely be residue (if not full-on clumps of peanut butter) on my kid’s face, hands or clothing. If you think your child is able to scrub themselves clean with surgical precision, I’m going to tell you—you’re wrong. I don’t care if your child is three, seven or eleven years old—their hand-washing skills probably hover somewhere between adequate and abysmal.

We haven’t even touched on bullying through intentional exposure to allergens, which has been reported (for example, when a child taunts an allergy-affected child with something like a peanut butter sandwich). For a child who’s been trained to aggressively avoid contact with nuts, having a peanut in your face is no different than being threatened with a knife.

My kids’ school currently bans peanuts and tree nuts—not a legal requirement, but a common practice in many provinces. Some food allergies are less severe (i.e. not resulting in anaphylaxis) and those foods are not banned. For example, milk is allowed even though some kids have dairy allergies—but, if a child at the school was at risk of death from exposure to milk, that would be banned as well. All food restrictions disappear at the high school level when kids are expected to manage their allergies independently.

Having a picky eater is frustrating and inconvenient for parents, but having a child with life-threatening food allergies is terrifying.

Can you imagine sending your child to school every day knowing that there was deadly anthrax somewhere in the building? Now imagine the anthrax is in their friends’ backpacks. Those kids are probably going to touch it at lunchtime but don’t worry—you’ve been assured that they’ll wash their hands before playing with your child.

Would that be enough to calm your fears?

Would your child be safe in this situation?

Yes, the ‘real world’ has nuts in it—but we don’t let four-year-olds cross a busy intersection alone because CHILDREN NEED HAND-HOLDING. The same thing goes for allergies—we make accommodations and take precautions now because kids rely on adults to keep them safe. As they age, we loosen the reins and eventually let go.

Please remember that no child ever died from NOT having peanut butter.

If your child is coming home from school tired, grumpy and hungry because they can’t have a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, I feel for you – no one wants to see their kid struggle. But if your response to this issue is to endanger the lives of innocent children because it inconveniences your family? Let me remind you of this – your kid might be coming home hungry, but if you send nuts to school, another child might not come home at all.

That should be more than enough to convince us all.

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