Peanut-Free Public Spaces Have Dire Consequences for Food Bank Users
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Peanut-Free Public Spaces Have Dire Consequences for Food Bank Users

Many low-income Torontonians rely on peanut butter as a nutritious and affordable source of protein, but it has its restrictions.

For Joe, the Fort York Food Bank is the key to staying healthy and consuming his daily calories. The Toronto resident (who asked not to use his last name to protect his privacy) relies on the food bank, visiting it once every week. Among his favourite pick-ups is peanut butter—a jar of which can last him up to a month.

But nut-free policies in the city’s public spaces—including libraries, parks, and community centres—could threaten Joe’s favoured source of protein and leave other low-income families who depend on food banks in a difficult position.

In the past decade, Toronto has cracked down on the sale and distribution of nut products in public spaces. In February 2006, Council voted in favour of eliminating the sale of snacks that contain peanuts and nuts from vending machines located in City parks, forestry, and recreational facilities.

Meanwhile, school boards across Ontario have had a mandatory anaphylaxis policy in place since 2006, along with school staff who are trained for emergency situations and know how to use an epinephrine auto-injection device within seconds if one of their students or colleagues has a severe allergic reaction. Sabrina’s Law was passed in 2006 following the death of 13-year-old Sabrina Shannon in 2003, who suffered an allergic reaction from french fries she brought from her school cafeteria in Pembroke, Ontario that were contaminated with dairy. More extreme measures have also been put into effect by the York Region District School Board, which prohibits products that look like peanut butter from its schools.

After five incidents in which peanut butter was smeared on playground equipment throughout city parks were reported this June, the discussion about banning nut products was once again brought to light—a move that could be potentially life-threatening to children with allergies.

For Torontonians who rely on food banks, like Joe, these bans act as restrictions—and for many, could mean foregoing eating an inexpensive meal in public. It also means that donors to food banks may no longer view peanut butter as a practical food product to give if users are restricted to where they can eat it.

According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, an estimated 141,000 pounds of peanut butter were distributed last year. It’s considered one of the few inexpensive protein options some parents can afford to include in their child’s lunchbox.

Even though he doesn’t have any children, Joe believes peanut butter and dairy products shouldn’t be banned from public spaces or even food banks. He says such donations are a big part of the food bank because single-parent families depend on them to keep their kids happy.

“If you put a sign or something up warning people, ‘If your children are allergic to peanut butter…’ that would be a good thing to put into the food banks, so people understand that if they’re children are allergic to peanut butter, they will not take them to the food bank,” Joe says. “But to ban peanut butter from food banks would be a bad idea.”

According to the Daily Bread Food Bank’s 2015 Who’s Hungry report, though there was a 16 per cent decline in people accessing food banks in the city’s downtown core, there has been a 45 per cent rise in Toronto’s inner suburbs and an overall 12 per cent increase across the city. Families with children account for 35 per cent of households visiting food banks in Toronto.

Senior manager of communications for the Daily Bread Food Bank, Sarah Anderson Austin, mentions that part of the organization’s plan is to make sure they have more alternative protein items to offer. A nut ban in public spaces wouldn’t necessarily affect the Daily Bread’s operation but would be challenging for organizations and programs that are located in community centres.

“Obviously, anytime a food ban is in place that would affect us, I think would make it more challenging,” Austin says. “It’s challenging regardless to be able to get enough food, get a good variety of food, and get it out to the people who need it most.”

Likewise, Austin says there is always unpredictability surrounding what donations are made by the public and corporations.

“We’d never be able to provide a nut-allergy environment at our warehouse and our volunteers are aware of that,” she says. “Personally, for us, we have a limited amount of food we can send out at the moment and it would affect us negatively in terms of having even less variety of food to be able to send out.”

The City has not yet considered a wider ban on nut products in other public spaces—something Joe can rest easy about. He’ll continue to enjoy his peanut butter monthly—a healthy snack that may have its restrictions but can make all the difference in his diet.