For years, Michelle Fenyves has started each school year with a conversation with teachers, office staff and cafeteria workers to make sure they understand that her daughter suffers a severe peanut allergy.
Eight-year-old Haley now carries her own EpiPen to school so that she can inject herself with a medication should she have an allergic reaction.
"She is at the top of the charts with severity," Fenyves said.
Fenyves credited educators at Sonoma Mountain Charter School in Petaluma's Old Adobe School District for treating her daughter with compassion. Haley Fenyves's third grade classroom is "peanut free" and there is a "allergen free" table in the cafeteria where foods known to cause a student's reaction are prohibited.
But as the number of children who suffer from food allergies continues to rise, Michelle Fenyves and others say Old Adobe and other schools and districts should have standard protocols for how to deal with students who are allergic to not only peanuts, but also wheat, dairy, shellfish and other foods.
"We are not saying never eat peanut butter in your life. We are asking for five or six hours of your life," she said.
Some contend that the medical condition of a few should not dictate how entire classrooms or even campuses are run. School officials say they hear that argument, but that the safety of students outweighs convenience and the food preferences of the majority.
The growing prevalence of food allergies is challenging school administrators and families nationwide.
About 8 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from a food allergy. Such allergies increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007 in kids under 18. Experts have yet to pinpoint the cause for the increase.
The affliction costs the U.S. nearly $25 billion a year according to a recent study led by a pediatrician and professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
School officials say they are looking for solutions that don't marginalize allergy sufferers while respecting other students' hankering not just for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in their lunch boxes but occasional cupcakes made with dairy products in the classroom.
At Wright School District in Santa Rosa, Superintendent Adam Stein said classrooms have been deemed "nut free" when an allergic student enrolls. "We are trying to build community and you can't build a feeling of community by excluding" students, Stein said. "There are other options."
Measures to confront the issue differ among schools and districts. Santa Rosa City Schools' hot lunch program offers three daily entrees so that varying dietary needs can be met.
The Old Adobe School Board is considering changing its student wellness policy to allow officials to institute classroom, grade-level or even campus-wide food bans should health concerns merit the prohibition.
"It's very individualized," Superintendent Kim Harper said of the proposed language. "We are trying to come up with something that is factual and not emotional because obviously this is a really emotional issue for all of the right reasons."
Old Adobe School Board President Cecilie Stuelpe said she is willing to consider nut-free schools. She said any such move would mark a "cultural shift" that she is open to.
"We have a draft policy that provides a lot of flexibility in terms of what we could be able to do in order to serve ... students depending on the severity of the allergy," she said, noting that her daughter eats peanut butter in her lunch nearly every day.