Lunchbox letdown: parents grapple with long list of banned foods at schools

Packing a healthy school lunch isn't easy. Compounding the problem of coming up with something that's tasty and nutritious, is an ever-changing list of food allergens that could be fatal in extreme cases.

Peanut butter alternative Wowbutter too close to the real thing for some lunch monitors in local schools

Many parents are struggling to deal with an increasingly long list of foods that are prohibited from being part of their children's lunches. (Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley)

As another back-to-school season gets underway, lunchtime rules have gotten more complicated for some Ottawa parents who are being warned to avoid more and more allergens.

Kim Baker said she was shocked to get a letter from her daughter's elementary school in Barrhaven with a long list of foods that were banned this year, including a peanut butter alternative called Wowbutter. 

What am I going to feed my daughter? Because that's quite the list.- Kim Baker

She said the prohibited foods included not just peanuts, but tree nuts, walnuts, cashews, pistachios, pecans, sesame, legumes, flax, wheat, barley, rye, gluten, shellfish, fin fish, snap and snow peas. 

"Of course I was going, 'Oh wow,' what am I going to feed my daughter? Because that's quite the list," Baker told CBC News.

"It says, 'Please read and avoid bringing any of these items to school.' We were trying to figure out, with less than 12 hours' notice before the next day, what we could possibly send our daughter without going crazy and spending a fortune on products that don't have gluten in them."

Baker said the letter from St. Emily School advised her that one or more children in her daughter's Grade 4 class had potentially fatal allergies and certain foods had to be avoided

She was initially worried about how she'd be able to manage such a long list of allergens, especially gluten.

However, she said the school has since backed away from banning flax, wheat, barley, rye and gluten. The list of unacceptable foods is still long enough to cause stress, she said.

'It's just hard as a parent'

"I feel bad for these kids who have all these allergies and their parents trying to cope with it as well. It can't be an easy thing to do. I get it. I respect it," she said.

"It's just hard as a parent. I could see that some people couldn't afford the alternatives."

Even substitutes for cafeteria pariahs like peanut butter can cause headaches for some parents. Wowbutter looks and smells like peanut butter, but is actually soy-based and contains no peanuts or tree nuts.

Even though Wowbutter is made from soybeans, and is touted as a safe substitute for peanut butter, the product is still banned in some schools. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Lisa Gardiner said products like Wowbutter have been banned at her two kids' school in Carleton Place for at least seven years. She said the reason is because it can be too difficult for hall monitors to distinguish between the real stuff and the substitute.

"I do not understand the need to ban substitutions that could easily be marked for lunch monitors to identify," Gardiner said.

"That being said, if my kids had life threatening allergies I could easily make an argument for banning Wowbutter as an extra step in protecting my child."

'Be sympathetic,' Ottawa allergist says

Dr. Antony Ham Pong, an allergist and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine, said he sympathizes with parents grappling with food choices and schools that are trying to best protect children with allergies.

But he said schools should exercise some common sense.

Dr. Antony Ham Pong says schools should exercise common sense when it comes to allergy policies. (Submitted)

"That is going overboard because [Wowbutter] is safe," Pong said.

"If there's a sticker, fine. If there's no sticker there and [the school] is concerned, they should have a backup plan. For example, have some other snack at school that the child who brings the Wowbutter can have instead of their sandwich."

"Be sympathetic. Your child doesn't have food allergies. That's great. But respect the other child's disorder and try to protect them. There are many alternatives," he added.

Pong said while the number of children and teenagers visiting emergency rooms with severe allergic reactions continues to increase, fatalities remain rare. He credits this to greater awareness, both in homes and in schools. 

"So [the number of deaths] is not high because people are protecting their children and when they eat something accidentally it's a trace amount. So the reaction is treatable," he said.

The Ottawa Catholic School Board uses a "support document" for guidance on avoiding food-related allergic reactions in schools.

The document states that, "It is unrealistic to attempt to ban/eliminate allergens completely. The goal is to minimize and control allergens through education. It is recommended that the words 'ban' and 'eliminate' not be used in any communication."