Cupcakes will no longer be the usual fare for in-class birthday parties in Deerfield Public Schools District 109.
Developed by a committee of parents and 109 staff, the district’s new food policy strictly limits what can be consumed in the classroom and other events outside the cafeteria to reduce allergic reactions. It is expected to go into effect when students return to school Aug. 27.
All parties, including holiday events and birthdays will be food-free, according to a draft of the district’s new policy, which is expected to be presented to the Board of Education for approval when it next meets at 7 p.m. August 25. Valentine’s Day and Halloween are included.
“We want to make the schools safe for children with life-threatening allergies and other food-related concerns,” Executive Director for Student Services Jenell Mroz said. “It also promotes a healthy lifestyle for all children.”
In all schools, allowance of snacks in schools is up to the teacher, according to Mroz. Snacks for elementary school students will be limited to fruits and vegetables, while middle school children will be able to add cheese and yogurt to the mix. Additions like toppings, dips and spreads are not allowed. Water is the only permitted beverage.
Protein-rich foods like cheese and yogurt are added to the permissible snacks for middle school students because the early lunch period for some students makes it helpful to give them added nutrition later in the day, according to Mroz.
“Middle school students are really growing,” Mroz said. “They need the opportunity for food with protein.”
She also said older students are more capable of making decisions for themselves, while “it’s harder for the younger student to have all the tools they need to keep themselves safe.”
In all cases, students cannot share food in the classroom and teachers cannot use food as part of the curriculum. This does not include middle school science experiments. Eating of any sort is not permitted in the labs.
“If a teacher is talking about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving, the children do not get to eat turkey,” Mroz said, explaining the distinction.
The district already has policies designed to keep children with allergies safe, and they remain in place. While there are no restrictions on what a student can bring for lunch, there are allergen-free tables that are frequently cleaned, according to Mroz.
With the number of children with life-threatening food allergies on the rise, the district decided to establish a committee of stakeholders to help create the new policy. It was facilitated by Denise Bunning of Lake Forest, the co-founder of Mothers of Children Having Allergies, who declined to be interviewed for this article.
Parents and staff representing all schools in the district were part of the committee, along with Mroz and Communications Director Cathy Kedjedjian. The committee was charged with developing the policy over the summer for implementation this fall.
“It was pretty daunting when we first started,” said Lauren Izaks, the mother of two Wilmot Elementary School students and a committee member. “There were times we disagreed but we came together with an effective policy.”
Danielle Fern, a South Park Elementary School parent, was one of the members. It is the first time she has participated in a district-wide activity like this, and she said she was glad she did.
“It was very empowering,” she said. “It is my duty to make the schools a safe place. Two or three kids in each class are allergic to something like nuts, dairy, wheat or fish.”
Having several children per class with allergies is the reality in District 109, and the trend is only going upward, according to Mroz.
“We continue to see more and more children in our schools with life threatening allergies,” she said, although she did not have precise statistics. She hypothesized that some people may outgrow allergies as they mature or they become better equipped handling them.
Besides dealing with what types of food and drink to allow, the committee also worked on methods of dealing with an allergic reaction, according to Izaks.
“We have to make sure no child is left alone (after a reaction) and the nurse comes to the classroom,” she said. “First call 911 and then the parents.”
Other committee participants include parents Susan Jensen, Jill Rubin, Sheri Donovan and Jenny Stadelman; staff members Carie Cohen, Rebecca Dushman, Nikki Vaggelatos, John Filippi and Scott Schwartz; and Shepard Middle School nurse Andi Rosenthal.