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Frazzled over food allergies

BAG LUNCHES from home are not allowed next to students with allergies in an effort to eliminate cross-contamination. Roosevelt and Rossman policies are a strong "urging" of parents to not send peanut butter sandwiches to school.1 / 2
school lunches in Detroit Lakes Elementary Schools no longer contain anything with peanuts or peanut butter after a surge in allergies prompted school leaders to change the menu.2 / 2

The number of children diagnosed with food allergies seems to be swelling as quickly and as alarmingly as their airways can, and our area is no exception.

"There's no question the number of kids being affected by food allergies is rising ... no question at all," said Sanford Health Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist Dr. Anand Kantak.

"There is no clear answer as to what is causing the increase, but awareness to the problem is resulting in more diagnoses."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately one out of every 25 children in the U.S. have a food allergy, which is a sharp 18 percent rise between 1997 and 2007.

Detroit Lakes mother and speech pathologist for Roosevelt Elementary Anita Henderson has a son who is part of those statistics.

He broke out in hives at the age of 3 after eating peanut butter.

"And every time we exposed him to it, his reaction would get worse," Henderson said.

From then on, she always made sure her little boy and his EpiPen weren't ever too far apart.

"You'd just poke it in his leg if he couldn't breath and it just opens everything back up," explains Henderson.

Her son, now a second grader at Roosevelt Elementary in Detroit Lakes, has never had an anaphylactic reaction (where decreased blood pressure leaves the brain starved for oxygen and airways dangerously swell), but she isn't taking the chance.

"We try to monitor what he eats," Henderson said.

She goes on to say her son is now old enough to be an advocate for himself in most situations, "he knows how to read all the labels," but says even cross contamination is a concern.

"So we keep snacks at the school for him for those days when kids bring cupcakes or something that was made at a bakery where peanuts were maybe being used in other things," Henderson explains.

But for those moments when parents can't always be watching and kids can't always interpret the label, the Detroit Lakes School District does its part to protect these students.

After a growing number of parents expressed concern over their children's food allergies, both Rossman and Roosevelt Elementary school leaders decided to act.

"We started encouraging parents not to send peanut butter sandwiches because the severity of these allergies is just too risky," said Roosevelt Principal Jerry Hanson.

The peanut butter ban (or request) isn't always a popular one, and Hanson says they do still get some PB&J's in the lunch boxes.

"So, what we'll do then is put those kids with allergies and some of their friends at a table with a sign so that nobody with a bag lunch from home can sit by them."

Another thing the schools will do upon hearing about a food allergy is to contact Food Services Director for Detroit Lakes Duane Dunrud.

"We'll then work with the parents," said Dunrud, "We get kids with peanut allergies, dye allergies, egg allergies, and most recently now are gluten allergies - those seem to be growing the most."

Dunrud says if a child has gluten allergies, he'll have the parent get the lunch menu and decide which days their child can or cannot eat lunch at school.

"Then we just make sure she doesn't eat the bun," explains Dunrud, "If we have breaded chicken that day, we'll make her a grilled breast or if we have Turkey a la King, we'll make hers with corn starch instead of flour - we will work with each case."

Dunrud says he also made the decision about four years ago to take all peanut butter or peanuts out of the menu for both elementary schools since that is by far the most prevalent allergy.

"At the elementary level, kids might not know what contains peanuts, but I think the older kids know what they can and cannot eat," Dunrud said.

Joining in on the effort to keep children safe at school are teachers.

"I have a little girl who is severely allergic to peanuts," said Rossman Second Grade Teacher Kathy Mayfield.

"So I sent a note home making parents aware of this and asking them not to send class snacks to school with peanut butter in them."

Mayfield says another big problem she's noticed is seasonal allergies.

"I've gone through a box of tissues in my classroom just today, and it's not colds."

One might think that those types of allergies are completely different, but experts say there is a link.

"People who suffer from seasonal allergies or other types of allergies are four times more likely to have a food allergy," said Dr. Kantak.

"Not many people know this, but there is especially a link between eczema and food allergies ... parents must aggressively treat the eczema."

Dr. Kantak says even though children often grow out of food allergies, if they don't, there is still help.

"Bring the child in, and what we can do is slowly expose them to the food a little bit at a time (while being medically monitored) until their bodies begin accepting it."

Dr. Kantak stresses that the exposure tactic is for non-severe cases only.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Lakes School District has a big job in trying to accommodate each child's allergy needs, making it important that parents not confuse food allergies with food intolerance.

"A food intolerance is when a person's body just doesn't like something in a food ... it doesn't react well," said Sanford Health Clinical Nutrition Specialist Dr. Cathy Breedon. "But a food allergy is when your body actually detects a protein within that food and reacts as if the protein is attacking the body, so it begins putting up defenses in an immune response, which can be deadly."

Dr. Breedon says food allergies in children causes even more harm when parents get too caught up in avoidance that they don't adequately nourish their children.

"When I get these kids, they are often quite poorly nourished in so many ways," said Dr. Breedon.

Breedon says insurance doesn't usually cover those types of follow-up visits for parents to get that information on how to correctly substitute foods, but she recommends a website as a start.

That site is