Cognitive dissonance and food allergy safety

Even the best intended people, especially if they don’t have to manage food allergies in their own personal lives, can make dubious choices. (Just see previous blog posts for some of my own.)

After moving to San Diego, one of the key factors we used in selecting the neighborhood where we live was the local school district’s enlightened policies regarding food. For food allergy safety, the elementary schools have multiple peanut-free tables, and for nutritional concerns and food allergy safety, the district has a “no sweets” policy for birthdays and holidays like Halloween and Valentine’s Day.

Unintended consequences: Safety, engineered mindlessly, can foster stigmatization
One of the issues that arises thanks to the prevalence of “peanut free” tables is segregation, which can precipitate stigmatization of children with food allergies. Evidently our school’s “peanut free” tables are on the perimeter of the lunch area, which is out doors, and are unshaded during the winter (no violin music, please) because the sun is so low.  Consequently, children who don’t have to sit at those tables during the winter choose not to, leaving the children with nut allergies alone more often than not. It’s not hard to see how the safety policy can lead to unintended segregation and eventually, stigmatization.

By the way I have recently read about schools where instead of “peanut free” tables, they have “peanut” tables – in other words, if you have peanuts, nuts, or peanut butter, you HAVE TO sit at a peanut table; otherwise you may sit anywhere else you please. Children with nut allergies obviously avoid those tables, but are otherwise free to enjoy lunch safely and happily with other friends. Might not seem fair to isolate kids eating peanut butter sandwiches, but they don’t have to do it every day. It’s not like having to step out into the smoking lot.

Valentine’s Day and Teacher’s Cognitive Dissonance
Over the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, our daughter’s teacher reminded the children every day NOT to bring candy to dispense on Valentine’s Day, and warning them about how much trouble they would get in if they did. Nice job!

Then, on Valentine’s Day, she gave the kids an craft project that involved Conversation Hearts. (Conversation Hearts are those little heart shaped candies with cute words of affection on them.) Candy! That’s right, after days of warning them in advance they’d better not bring candy to school, she gave them candy to use in an craft project.


Our daughter was surprised, but explained her safety concerns and asked to read the label. It contained the familiar vague warning about having been produced in a facility that also processes nuts and peanuts. She told her teacher she was scared of the candy, and wasn’t sure she should touch it. Her teacher told her just to be sure and wash her hands when she was done.

While we don’t fault her teacher for not comprehending the “produced in a facility” language on a food label, we DO fault her for bringing candy into the school against school and district policy and after repeatedly warning the children not to bring candy themselves.

We’re still shaking our heads.


About Tom

Tom Anichini owns Egg-Free Epicurean along with his wife, Amy Jones Anichini, who founded the business in 2009. Tom is an actuary and an investment professional. He holds an MBA in Finance from the Chicago Booth School of Business and a BS in Actuarial Science from the University of Illinois. He is also a CFA charter holder and an Associate of the Society of Actuaries. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two daughters.
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