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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.

"When we are talking about a life threatening allergy," she said. "We will figure it out."

Tom Zembal, a pediatrician with Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods, said that less-severe or even perceived susceptibilities have complicated the debate over food allergies. "It is certainly a significant pediatric problem. We need to be on it as practitioners, we need to make sure that schools are on it," he said.

"I have a real healthy respect for peanut allergy," Zembal said. "I worry that hysteria about gluten and milk gets mixed in with the nut allergy. Most of those others are in the 'No big deal' category."

Of the children who suffer from a food allergy, 39 percent had a history of severe reaction, according to the journal Pediatrics.

More than 90 percent of allergic reactions come from just eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The July death of a 13-year-old Carmichael girl who ate a Rice Krispies treat with peanut butter in it prompted many parents of children with food allergies to call for more awareness of the issue.

Many school districts across Sonoma County handle the issue on a case-by-case basis, but advocates of more stringent rules say that the increasing number of students who suffer from food allergies demand a more standardized protocol.

"It's not just a rash that these kids get," said Jennifer Solomon of Petaluma, whose 6-year-old daughter has a severe peanut allergy. "Especially with little kids, they are messy, they are holding hands, they are jumping rope, they are constantly touching each other. A six-year-old is not capable of thinking the way we do. She doesn't think, 'Gee, Susie just used that pencil and had a peanut butter sandwich.'"

Parents of children with severe allergies say they sometimes hear grumbling from other parents about school menu and treat restrictions prompted by allergy concerns.

"It might be a small inconvenience for them," Solomon said. "The alternative, sending a child to the ER, is a worse outcome and I do not think anyone would want to see that happen."

Bryan Nyberg, Santa Rosa City Schools's director of child nutrition services, which creates about 12,000 meals a day out of the central kitchen, said whole peanuts and trail mix are being phased out this year and he is considering dropping pre-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the menu.

By law, a student who qualifies for a free or reduced-price lunch — 44 percent of Santa Rosa City Schools students — must be served a meal consistent with their dietary needs, he said.

Officials say parents typically understand when restrictions are put in place, but not always.

Before Stein was named superintendent at Wright School District in Santa Rosa, he worked in a district where some parents lobbied to have students with food allergies banned from school parties where food was served, rather than having some types of food prohibited.

That is not an option, legally or otherwise, he said.

"This is something that is no fault of the student, so we don't want the students to feel victimized any more than they already do," he said.

At Waugh School District's Meadow School, staff members were trained in the use of EpiPens before Rocio Miscio's daughter, who is severely allergic to peanuts, set foot on campus, she said.

"We have actually been really lucky," she said. "I know a lot of parents have really challenging experiences."

Miscio said she keeps a "treat box" in her daughter's classroom so her daughter won't feel left out if a parent brings in snacks she is unable to eat.

"I don't want it to be hard for parents," she said. "The last thing I want to have happen is for her to be excluded because (parents) are worried about it."

"I don't want to be a hysterical parent; I want to come in with knowledge. I'm not making this up," she said.

Even physicians say they wrestle with how to help parents navigate a world that will never be free of the food that afflicts their child.

"Some parents by nature are very protective. They would like to see the school and the whole world peanut free," said Al Haas, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente. "Then there are the people who say 'By golly, I want my kid to learn to protect him or herself. When he leaves school there are not going to be situations where it is going to be peanut-free.'"

"There are many different ways to live and I just don't believe in 100 percent right or wrong," he said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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