Some Central Ohio school districts are revamping their policies on food in the classroom amid surging allergy and health concerns.

For much of his school career, Jamie Vance did not look forward to birthday treats in the classroom. As a child with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, the fourth-grader and his teachers had to be vigilant to determine if the goodies were safe for him to eat.

Often, his teachers at Evening Street Elementary School in Worthington couldn't be completely sure the foods were nut-free, so the 10-year-old would go without, or eat a substitute snack that his mom put in his backpack for such occasions.

“There was a lot of being left out, which is OK,” said his mother, Megan Vance. “But it was happening so often that it was a stress.”

Vance and other parents of children with allergies and health issues have long advocated for schools to take more interest in what food items are being sent into classrooms. Now, some Central Ohio districts are taking action.

Amid rising rates of food allergies and sensitivities, as well as childhood obesity, some schools are rethinking policies about what foods can be brought into the classroom. For some, the changes come amid updates to federally mandated wellness plans designed to create a healthy atmosphere for learning.

At the start of the school year, Worthington City School District prohibited parents from sending cupcakes, brownies or other food items to school to celebrate birthdays or other special occasions. The Dublin City School District enacted a similar policy for the 2015-16 school year.

Families still are allowed to send stickers, pencils or other non-food-related items, or they can donate a book to the classroom in honor of their child, said Patrick Callaghan, director of elementary education for Worthington schools. The district will continue to “encourage and support” families in their efforts to celebrate children's birthdays at school, he wrote in an August letter to parents.

The Vances are thankful for the policy change, because they no longer have to worry that Jamie could eat something that would cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. It's also made birthdays fun again. “Jamie feels more included now,” Megan Vance said. “It never should be about the food. It should be about what else is going on in the classroom and who else is there.”

Proactive Policies

Dublin's policy is similar to Worthington's and was enacted for many of the same reasons, said Tracey Miller, director of district operations. “Food allergies, healthy eating, concerns about wellness—all of those things tremendously impacted the decision,” he said.

Dublin school officials hope to send the message to students and parents that special events can be celebrated without food, he said. “It's been very well-received,” Miller said. “We definitely don't see a need to change coming up any time in the future.”

Worthington's policy, which has received positive feedback from parents, extends beyond food served during classroom parties, Callaghan said. It also asks teachers not to use food as a reward for classroom behavior or academic achievement. “We want our kids to be healthy,” he said. “We don't want to be offering them junk food.”

The district now requires parents who are planning classroom parties to share the menu with all parents prior to the event to make sure the foods are suitable for every student, he said. Party planners are encouraged to include healthful choices on the menu and limit sugary snacks. “We're still having parties,” Callaghan said. “We're just limiting some of the foods. We're saying, ‘Let's be reasonable with what we have during parties.' ”

More families may see similar changes when districts update their Local School Wellness Policy, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The written policies, which must be assessed every three years, are designed to guide school districts in creating an environment that promotes student health and well-being, said Kenna Haycox, a policy consultant with the Ohio School Boards Association in Columbus.

During this update, schools are required to develop standards for all foods that are provided (but not sold) to students throughout the day, she said. That includes snacks brought in for birthday treats, classroom parties and other items given as incentives, Haycox said. In some districts, concerns about food allergies, obesity and parity among classrooms could prompt changes. “Some districts have chosen to integrate that as part of their plan,” she said.