The list of options available to parents struggling to pack healthy, nutritious and tasty school lunches for their children in this province is shrinking, and it's creating a sticky situation for some parents.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District recently issued a directive to schools in the eastern region, reminding administrators that peanut butter substitutes such as Wowbutter are not permitted in schools that have instituted peanut- and/or nut-free policies.
Other regions of the province have similar policies, and the board is expected to implement a province-wide policy in due course, affecting all 260 schools and 67,000 students.
'When you put a product in a school that looks and tastes like a product that is highly allergic to some children to the point that it could cause death, we put an extra burden of responsibility on our staff.' - Jeff Thompson
The directive follows similar moves by school jurisdictions in other parts of the country, and consultations with legal experts.
Because the product looks, smells and tastes too much like peanut butter, and officials believe allowing it in schools with nut-free policies puts children at greater risk.
That’s despite assurances from the manufacturer of Wowbutter and health officials that such products are safe for those with allergies.
"It's a precautionary measure to ensure the health and safety of all children in our schools, but particularly those with allergies," said Jeff Thompson, the associate director of education (programs) for the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District.
"When you put a product in a school that looks and tastes like a product that is highly allergic to some children to the point that it could cause death, we put an extra burden of responsibility on our staff to monitor those products and we inherently, intentionally or otherwise, inject a higher risk in our system.”
Peanut butter replacements have become more and more available in recent years, coinciding with a marked increase ━ some reports say the number tripled between 1997 and 2008 ━ in the number of children medically diagnosed with peanut allergies.
In severe cases, the ingestion of peanuts can lead to life-threatening anaphylactic shock, and sufferers are required to have injections of epinephrine within reach at all times.
In response, many schools have adopted strict restrictive policies.
Thompson could not give a specific figure on the number of schools in the province with nut-free policies, but noted, "It would be very rare and highly unlikely for any particular region in our school district to not have at least one child somewhere in our K-12 system for whom we would need to put this restriction in place."
Impossible to monitor
The ubiquitous peanut butter sandwich has long been a staple in school lunches. It’s tasty, nutritious, easy to make and most children like the taste.
But bringing a peanut butter sandwich into a school these days will, at the very least, get you a stern lecture and perhaps a trip to the principal’s office.
Most parents have been forced to find alternatives, and one of the more popular substitutes is Wowbutter.
The product is entirely peanut and tree nut free, and is made from locally grown soybeans at a production facility in southwestern Ontario.
It can be found in most major grocery stores in Canada, and is also exported abroad.
But one of its shortcomings, at least according to school leaders, is that it looks, smells and tastes just like peanut butter.
Thompson said it is impossible for teachers to adequately monitor the situation, and officials felt it was more important to put the health and safety of students above the right to bring such products into the school.
"We drew the conclusion that we really can't go down this road because to do so would compromise the safety of those children who need the extra protection because of their medical conditions," he explained.
Thompson used the example of a school cafeteria with 200 students, and only three teachers on duty.
“It would not be possible for them to do the monitoring to determine if something is (made from) peanut butter versus a product made with soy,” he said.
Thompson acknowledged the move has complicated the school lunch tradition in many homes, but emphasized there are many food options that parents can avail of.
“We get it that it`s a frustration, but we believe parents, once they understand why these restrictions are in place … I think they would fully understand the rationale behind it," he said.
The president of Wowbutter Foods, Scott Mahon, expressed frustration and disappointment when contacted this week by CBC News.
He said some school districts are choosing to “make life difficult” for parents and described the ban on his product as a form of bullying.
He suggested that school boards cannot legally prevent students from bringing safe, healthy and nutritious food items into schools.
He said it’s ironic that the system tasked to educate the nation’s children will not take the time to educate themselves about his product.
"We're supposed to be teaching our kids to accept and embrace and acknowledge the needs and uniqueness of others. Now the school is saying, 'no, we understand this is a safe product, but we don't want to take the time to educate and deal with it.’"
He said many schools have successfully embraced Wowbutter, and said sales have increased by double-digits each year since its release in 2011.
The company has taken extraordinary steps to counter arguments that its product presents an increased risk for students with allergies, including a comprehensive education program on its website that includes a “school lunch letter.”
Parents are encouraged to print off the form letter, sign it and send it to school with their child.
There’s also a very unique lunch identification system.
Behind the outer label of every jar of Wowbutter is a collection of stickers that can be placed on sandwich containers, emphasizing that Wowbutter is 100 per cent peanut and nut free.
"The labelling system works when schools decide to do a little bit of education," said Mahon, adding that he often receives calls from parents, frustrated that their school has banned Wowbutter.
"They are taking it too far. The bottom line is it's still a peanut and nut-free school. That does not change," he added.
"(Using Wowbutter) does not give the green light to any parents to go ahead and send any peanut products in."