Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Food Allergy Accommodation: When Is It Enough?

Food allergies are a considerably more talked about ailment these days.  There are a number of reasons why; people are more aware of their own dietary restrictions, specialized menus like gluten and lactose free are frequently advertised at restaurants, numerous high profile law suits have been settled in the last few years due to accidental cross contamination, and schools, airlines and other institution have adopted allergen-free policies.

Certainly it is wise to be educated about food allergens, especially if you suffer from them, and it's a must for anyone in the food service industry.  Everyone deserves a safe place to eat.  But when does accommodation become excessive?  Is it reasonable to expect a school or airline to prohibit any and all foods that are known allergens?

The answer might be simple at first, but lets consider all of the items that are common food allergens.

The most widely known one is peanuts of course (And further on, tree nuts in general).  This includes peanut butter, raw nuts such as almonds, many types of candy bars, pesto or thai sauce, etc.  You will find most companies and schools have policies prohibiting these types of foods, as it is probably the most common allergen, and a potentially fatal one for people that have anaphylactic reactions.

The other most common food allergens include dairy, gluten, eggs, and shellfish.  

It is rare that you will find anywhere in Canada that bans all of these foods, as it covers almost everything in the basic Canadian diet.  No bread for sandwiches, no yogurt or cheese, no omelettes or breakfast items, no shrimp for salads... the list goes on and on.

So when do we draw the line at accommodation?

Recently, a Hamilton, Ontario woman decided to find out where that line was.  Or perhaps to move the line in the sand a little further in her preferred direction.

Lynne Glover is the mother of 6 year old Elodie Glover, a cute blonde haired little girl who attends Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School.  Elodie is severely allergic to both egg and dairy.  So much so that she has gone into anaphylactic attacks numerous times in the last year.

Lynne was proactive, and spoke with the school board about their food policies, and the school board attempted to be accommodating.  They sent home letters to the parents of the other school children letting them know of Elodie's severe condition.  They replaced pizza day in the cafeteria with Roma Pizza (a non dairy pizza).  They even went so far as to suspend the school's milk program for all of the students to accommodate Elodie.

Unfortunately for Lynne Glover, this was not enough.  The other children were allowed to bring their regular lunches to school, with the exception of peanuts. Holy Name of Jesus already had a peanut ban in place, as many other children were affected by nut allergies.  The children are permitted to eat their lunches at their own desks.  Lynne was terrified of Elodie coming into contact with another child's lunch, so again she went back to the school board asking for something to be done.

The school board reiterated all of the changes they had already made on Elodie's behalf.  Additionally, the school's allergen policy states that schools "cannot guarantee an allergen-free environment", but will make "every reasonable effort" to reduce the risk of exposure for affected children.  The school offered to allow Elodie to eat her lunch in a different room.  Lynne refused, claiming they were segregating her daughter.  

Eventually the school board finally resigned from the conversation, at a loss for what else to do.  They could not tell all the other parents of the school that their children were not allowed to bring any milk products to school, as it is a Canadian staple.  Additionally, the Canada Food Guide and Health Canada already state that children do not get enough dairy in their daily diets.  How do you tell Mr. & Mrs. Smith that Johnny is not allowed to have a cheese sandwich, or yogurt, or a carton of milk in his lunch?  And what do you replace it with?

Lynne was less than pleased.  In addition to removing Elodie from the school, she also filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, claiming the school was being discriminatory against Elodie for not accommodating her further.  The school board won't comment on cases before judgement, so they have not released a public statement.

So when is enough enough?  Is Lynne correct and the school board should have done more to protect her daughter?  Or is Lynne being unreasonable expecting an entire school to sacrifice their dietary programs for the sake of one student?


  1. Anonymous3:49 PM

    I'm not sure where you got your information regarding the school board reiterating changes it had made because it is inaccurate. And for the record, Elodie is not the only child unable to attend the school because of allergies.

  2. Thank you for pointing that out. I checked my sources again and it did not specify that the school board "reiterated" the changes they made, but rather the articles recapped the changes they made. I should suspect that Mrs. Glover was well aware of the accommodations already provided, and that reiteration was not necessary.

    You seem to have some inside information, so I suspect you know the family in question or are related to the school?

    I agree and understand that Elodie Glover is not the only child unable to attend school due to allergies. There are however, other options, such as home schooling. Another option would be to pressure the school board to create a class specifically for children who suffer from unusually dangerous food allergies. As you said, there are other children with similar afflictions, and I am sure their parents would also appreciate such a program.

    Other comments and suggestions for parents with food sensitive children are welcome :)