How peanuts can help meet today’s challenges and why they belong on K-12 menus
By: Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, and Jeanne Reilly, NDTR, SNS
Peanut butter has been a favorite of school children since, well, since the beginnings of the National School Lunch Program. As an iconic American food, the PB&J is ubiquitous and beloved. Today’s students are also interested in global flavors and spice, vegetarian and plant-based options. Peanut butter and other peanut products fit these trends perfectly too. In this article, we’ll share why we believe that peanuts are a great fit in school meals.
School nutrition professionals have many opportunities to tap into students’ affinity for peanuts and peanut butter. However, we must consider some of the barriers to peanuts in schools. When we listen to comments from school nutrition professionals about peanuts, peanut allergies are an inevitable topic of concern. Sentiments like, “we cannot serve peanut butter because we have a ‘peanut free’ school” and “it’s too complicated to think about changing peanut allergy policy or nut/tree nut allergy policy – or any food allergy policy” come up and make us pause. We know that many school nutrition professionals want to serve peanut butter to their students, but they are unsure where to start when there is resistance. In some cases, a ban may have been in place for many years without revisiting its effectiveness, necessity or the latest research-based recommendations.
Managing Food Allergens in Schools
Fortunately, the National Peanut Board has great resources at PeanutsinSchools.org that can help schools serve peanut foods in the safest ways possible. Their videos, FAQs and links to other tools can help schools learn how peanut foods can be safely served even in schools where there are students with peanut allergies. Whether using individually wrapped PB&J sandwiches or portion cups of peanut butter, making sandwiches from scratch or serving Asian noodles with peanut sauce, a comprehensive allergen management plan takes the guess work out of food allergy safety. According to allergy experts, food bans -- including peanut and nuts bans -- are not medically necessary and they may create a false sense of security making the situation even more dangerous for students with food allergies. (Waserman, 2021 and Greenhawt, 2020) However, more research is needed to determine with greater certainty which interventions are likely to be most beneficial.
Use the resources at PeanutsinSchools.org when questions about managing allergens comes up. And remember these tips when you think about serving (or bringing back!) peanut foods to your schools:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s essential to provide clear and consistent communication internally and externally when you are serving any food allergen on the menu.
- Know your students with food allergies. The staff at your schools are your best tools to identify students with food allergies, especially since many schools aren’t using electronic point-of-sale systems due to universal feeding eligibility. Have a system in place to ensure that there are allergy checks in place.
There are many reasons peanuts and peanut butter can benefit school nutrition programs. Here are four of the reasons we’re convinced that peanuts do belong in schools.
1. Kids Love Peanut Butter
Consumer research suggests that the average American will eat as many as 3,000 peanut butter sandwiches in their lifetime. But these days, we know it's not just the iconic PB&J that kids love. The truth is that the palate of Americans has changed and that’s true for school children too. These days, kids love spicy, global flavors and they come to school looking for meals that reflect the ones they eat at home and at local restaurants. If we want students to eat school meals, they must taste good first.
2. Peanut Butter is Convenient
Pre-made PB&J sandwiches have been a favorite of students for years. During the pandemic, they became an essential part of emergency meal delivery for schools across the country due to their convenience. Many directors reported that offering pre-made or homemade PB&J sandwiches increase participation. Because it is shelf-stable, peanut butter is also a food that’s perfect for keeping in stock all the time.
3. Peanut Butter is Affordable
Peanut products provide a cost-effective plant-based protein, meat/meat alternate option with minimal labor investment that children love. Peanut butter is affordable for school nutrition programs to purchase or to divert into processing for pre-made sandwiches. It’s also affordable because it’s versatile and can be used in many other recipes. It can help reduce the cost of a full serving of another meat/meat alternate such as yogurt when mixed to make this Yogurt Dip or served as part of a vegetarian or chicken dish using this Multipurpose Peanut Sauce. Lastly, the value of peanut butter can also be seen in its very low waste – both because it lasts a long time in storage and because students actually consume meals that include peanut butter.
4. Bans Interfere with Food Equity
While social justice and food equity are currently hot topics, they are not new issues for schools. The school nutrition program was established to help ensure that hungry children were fed. Banning specific foods creates inequalities from school district to school district and even within school districts. It is important to remember that peanuts and other nuts are a valuable source of nutrition for children from various backgrounds, including vegetarians (by choice and by religion). Peanut butter is also often a lifeline for children with diabetes as a snack to help manage blood sugars. Lastly, it is often a nutrient-rich food that children with sensory processing differences (like autism) will eat when they may not eat much else.
Restricting access to these foods by children who can safely eat them unnecessarily creates inequalities.
Peanut Butter on The Menu
Wherever you’re serving school meals, peanut butter can help. Breakfast, lunch, snack and supper are all times when peanuts and peanut butter can fit. As we mentioned, peanut butter is a versatile ingredient that can go beyond the PB&J. If you’re still doing (or need to do again) curbside or delivery meals for students, consider how using individually wrapped or portion cupped peanut butter products can help you serve safe and nutritious meals for students. For remote meals single-serve peanut butter and individually wrapped PB&J are a value-added convenience because they are shelf stable and unitized to prevent cross-contact.
We know the last two years have been incredibly challenging for school nutrition programs. Ongoing supply chain issues and staffing difficulties have hit schools especially hard. These issues impact food, equipment, and packaging supplies. When supply chain issues hit schools, they are very different from consumers not finding their favorite products on the shelves. Not being able to purchase cereal for 10,000 daily breakfasts or lacking bowls to serve cereal are problems of a whole different magnitude. The last thing schools need are unnecessary barriers to serving nutritious, delicious meals.
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
Dayle Hayes is an award-winning author and educator. Her creativity and common-sense have made her a sought-after speaker across the USA. As a parent and member of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), Dayle has dedicated decades to making school environments healthy for students and staff. She collected success stories for Making It Happen, a joint CDC-USDA project; co-authored the 2014 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years; and was lead author for the 2018 Joint Position (Academy, SNA and Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior) and Practice Papers: Comprehensive Nutrition Programs and Services in Schools.
Hayes served on the ADA Board of Directors, chairing the Public Initiative Team and Technology Task Force. She is a past president of the Montana Dietetic Association and past-chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group.
Jeanne Reilly, NDTR, SNS
Jeanne Reilly is a registered nutrition and dietetic technician and school nutrition specialist. She is the school nutrition director in Windham & Raymond, Maine. She is very involved in mentoring school nutrition directors and promoting school nutrition programs within her state and across the country, and is a co-administrator for two busy Facebook groups: Tips for School Meals That Rock, and Tips for Success, School Meals in Small Rural Districts.
Reilly is a member of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and is the policy and advocacy leader for the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group. She also is the legislative chairperson for Maine School Nutrition Association.