Quebec's largest school board is lifting its ban on peanuts and other anaphylaxis-inducing foods, saying restrictions on student lunches create a false sense of security.
The shift in philosophy by the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM) puts more emphasis on education, proper hand washing and awareness by students with allergies, their classmates and staff who are trained to respond to emergency situations.
A memo posted this week on the board's website said all of its 113,000 students across 191 schools can bring the foods they want for recess or lunch, including peanuts and other possible allergens.
"No food item shall be subject to a ban or may be confiscated by school personnel," it reads. "Parents are encouraged to help make the school a safe place by staying alert and trying not to put foods that cause severe allergies in their child's lunches."
Spokesperson Alain Perron said that "policing" certain foods creates "a false sense of security to school staff, children and parents," implying that allergenic foods can never be fully avoided.
"Removing all traces of allergens in school lunches is impossible in the context where allergies are so prevalent," Mr. Perron said in an interview.
Health Canada estimates that about 1,750,000 Canadians have a physician-diagnosed food allergy, about 5 per cent of the population. That number is higher, it says, for those who self-report an allergy to food.
Food Allergy Canada is a national group that "advocates for the needs of people living with food allergies and the risk of anaphylaxis." Executive director Laurie Harada thinks the move by CSDM has more to do with "making a statement" rather than laying out a "comprehensive policy."
"It's all about context. It's different if you're talking 5-year-olds versus 15-year-olds. When you have little kids, it's a bit of a different story," Ms. Harada said. "Some kids have wound up in the emergency room. It's not just a sniffle or a sneeze, it needs to be taken seriously."
The Globe and Mail asked CSDM for information on what went into its decision-making process, but the question was not answered directly.
As classes wind down for the year, the memo sent by CSDM has sparked outrage among some parents.
"This is so, so stupid, we are talking little kids here," said Celine Meyer, who has a son in Grade 2 who is allergic to peanuts. "It's more than just about educating my kid, there are still risks and I am not the only parent who thinks this."
Montreal-area mother Carla Da Silva says her son Christian Di Criscio has severe allergies to wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts and shellfish.
The nine-year-old recently had to be injected with epinephrine and rushed to the hospital after coming into contact with bread at a restaurant.
As a parent with a child whose school is unaffected by the change, Ms. Da Silva says she would have concerns if her son's school board implemented a similar bring-whatever-you want policy.
"Some parents feel that the idea of limiting certain allergens can give a false sense of security … feelings are mixed as to whether this is a valid approach," she said.
Ms. Da Silva knows there is always a risk that her son will come into contact with food he is allergic to. She questions the approach that extra hand washing can help.
"There are 700 children in my child's school," she said, doubting that all students will wash their hands appropriately.
Ms. Da Silva also has concerns around lunch monitoring, thinking it's unrealistic that those staff members on lunch duty can watch all students all of the time. She's also calling on the provincial and federal governments to get involved.
"I would want them to let families know what measures to put in place to reduce the risk to the children," Ms. Da Silva said.