Spread a little SunButter on your sandwich

Michael Morton

When Dining Services Director Elijah Norris spotted a product called SunButter last fall on a list of commodities available from the federal government, he ordered a small shipment for the Medway school system, thinking the sunflower seed-based item was meant to be a healthy alternative to the traditional dairy product.

Instead, when the containers arrived and he opened one up, a familiar-looking brown mixture revealed the product's true identity: a substitute for peanut butter, a food ubiquitous to childhood but one to which many students are allergic.

Intrigued, Norris sent out letters to parents informing them of the product, then set up a tasting event in late November at the town's John D. McGovern Elementary School. SunButter was put in little cups, along with raisins, celery, apple wedges and crackers.

"The general consensus was that they did enjoy it," Norris said, describing the taste as a cross between peanut butter and a bag of sunflower seeds. "Some were convinced it was peanut butter for sure. It's a good product."

With as an-yet-unexplained rise in peanut allergies among the student population it affects anywhere from 1 in every 80 children to 1 in every 125, according to estimates, schools have adopted new policies to deal with the condition.

Medway's school-prepared meals are now nut-free, though brown-baggers at McGovern and other elementary schools can still bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if they avoid eating them at designated nut-free tables in the cafeterias.

Milford has a similar ban on peanuts. But in Marlborough, as in Framingham and Natick, the school system still allows peanuts on a limited basis. While the goobers are not used in multi-ingredient dishes, the district has set up separate stations in its kitchens to prepare peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

As an experiment, Marlborough got rid of peanut butter sandwiches four years ago at one of its elementary schools, but parents complained so the district reversed course, according to Rold Van Kavelaar, director of Food Services.

"There's some students, that's all they'll eat," he said. "It got testy."

Cue SunButter, a peanut-free alternative developed by researchers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in tandem with sunflower seed processor Red River Commodities of Fargo, N.D. While peanuts are among the foods most likely to trigger allergies the list also includes soy and tree nuts like almonds, all used in various peanut butter substitutes sunflower seeds are relatively safe. And though at least one other peanut butter alternative makes the cut - the brown pea-based NoNuts Golden Peabutter - only SunButter is offered to schools by the USDA.

While the product was developed several years ago, school food service directors said they only noticed it this year in the government's catalog of food offerings and began ordering it. "I've been hearing from other districts that they've been making the switchover," Natick Food Service Director Bob Burr said. "We're probably going to be looking into that."

With the November taste test a success, Medway's Norris said he now offers SunButter and jelly sandwiches. And in Milford, Food Services Director Carla Tuttle received the USDA product last month and hopes to provide samples soon at Brookside Elementary School. "If I could put that as an alternative, it might sell more lunches," she said.

However, while Marlborough's Van Kavelaar has conducted a successful SunButter taste test at the high school and said he would consider phasing out peanut butter, he noted a roadblock: the USDA does not currently offer SunButter in the same discounted quantities it does peanut butter. And in Framingham, Director of Food Services Brendan Ryan said students unable to eat peanut butter are already used to going without that type of spread, an attitude reinforced by their parents.

"Most of the parents shy away from anything that even resembles peanut butter," he said.

Still, Natick's Burr thinks SunButter will stick.

"I think it's a slow trend,"he said. "Eventually it's going to catch on."

Michael Morton can be reached at or 508-634-7582.

MetroWest Daily News