Schools Might Ban Bringing Treats District Worries Nasties Could Be Lurking in Your Homemade Goodies

Article excerpt

Byline: Russell Lissau Daily Herald Staff Writer

Mundelein Elementary District Superintendent Ray Partridge has fond memories of the classroom parties of his youth.

Partridge cheerfully recalls sharing homemade cookies and cupcakes with his friends during holiday parties, birthday celebrations and other school events.

"Those are the kinds of things kids remember," Partridge said.

Homemade snacks still are a big part of school parties, and with the growing popularity of international fairs, dishes are becoming more and more adventurous.

But where exactly does that food come from? When your kids enjoy homemade brownies, tacos or Swedish meatballs at school functions, they have no idea if the cooks had clean hands, used sanitary utensils or even prepared the delicacies at the proper temperatures.

"You don't know what's going on in someone's home," said Barry Sackin, a spokesman with the American School Food Service Association.

That's why Mundelein school officials are considering prohibiting homemade food at classroom and school functions. If the ban is approved, Mundelein will join the Round Lake Area schools as the only districts in southern or central Lake County with such restrictions.

Officials who favor the proposal hope it will help keep foodborne illnesses out of schools.

"When you make treats for a classroom, there are 30 kids who potentially will be eating that food," said Lisa Lerner, vice president of the Mundelein Elementary District 75 school board. "I want to make sure those 30 kids stay well."

But some school leaders, including members of the District 75 board, don't think a ban is the solution. Some think it could lead to the end of international fairs and similar activities, while others worry about the loss of parental participation in school events.

"It's a difficult and complex decision," Partridge said.

A stomach-churning variety of diseases can easily be spread through food that is inadequately cooked, prepared by someone with dirty hands or made with equipment that has not been sanitized.

Hepatitis A, salmonella, botulism, cholera, E. coli and dozens of other diseases can be transported through food. At the least, those ailments cause gastrointestinal discomfort. At the worst, they kill.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service's Web site, foodborne diseases result in 76 million illnesses in the United States every year, leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths.

Few of those cases occur in schools, but they do happen. According to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, 20 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in schools were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1997, the most recent figures available. Of those cases, 12 stemmed from food consumed in schools but brought from home or obtained from other sources.

Unfortunately, Mundelein's schools are familiar with foodborne pathogens. A few years ago, several teachers got sick after a staff-appreciation breakfast at Washington Elementary. Although the cause of the illness was not uncovered, district officials believe the outbreak stemmed from the meal, which was prepared by parents.

This year, two students at Mechanics Grove Elementary and one at Washington Elementary contracted hepatitis A while traveling abroad. After the cases were reported, administrators banned homemade treats in the students' classrooms for more than two months until they were sure the disease had not spread, said Bernie Hiller, District 75's certified school nurse.

The illnesses prompted Lerner to think about how to prevent such diseases from spreading through schools. To Lerner, a former breadmaker who was trained about the dangers of foodborne illnesses, banning homemade party food seemed like a good solution. …