Laramie students sickened by plant served in school

15 preschoolers taken to ER as precaution

LARAMIE, WY - When hundreds of adventurous eaters in one Laramie, Wyo., school district tried a raw plant as part of a school program to introduce healthy fruits and vegetables, they got more of an adventure than they bargained for.

Originally, the school was unclear if the problem food was yuca or yucca, both of which need to be properly prepared before consumption. Wednesday, however, the district confirmed it was yuca.

"It was gross," said Alexander Cole, 4, whose mother was happy, for once, that he is a picky eater.

"I asked how big of a bite he had because the school lets them have a 'No-Thank-You Bite,' so he hadn't had a very big bite," said Amber Cole. "We contacted our physician, but he didn't get sick." 

However, more than a dozen students did become sick, and 15 preschool aged students were taken to the hospital as a precaution after eating the poisonous yuca plant roots, according to district administrators.

"Concerns were raised this morning about the bite-sized pieces of yuca," said Mike Hamel, assistant superintendent with the Albany County School District. "We communicated with the Center for Disease Control and found out the yuca needs to be cooked to be eaten safely. At this time, we believe it was uncooked." 

The school said about 300 students in five schools ate the bite-sized samples, which were immediately pulled from remaining schools, but not all became sick. 

Symptoms from eating the toxic plant can include stomach aches, nausea, cramping and diarrhea.

The yuca was served as part of a grant-funded program to encourage children to try fruits and vegetables as a healthy snack.

"We’ve been running it for a year and a half," said Hamel. "It’s been a good program to help kids learn that  there are other things they could eat in their diet that are healthy for them. We hope the benefits of the program outside of what happened today continue in the future."

Hamel said the yuca came from a private contractor, Sodexo, that provides food for hospitals and schools all over the world.

Hamel said it appears that no students were seriously ill, but the district is paying for any medical expenses related to the incident.

"The $10,000 question is 'How did this happen?'" said Hamel. "We’re going to have to have conversations with our food service provider to try to answer that."

Parents in Laramie told 7NEWS they just want to know it won't happen again, because getting their kids to eat vegetables is hard enough.

"It's shocking that this could happen," said Amber Cole.

Sodexo released this statement Wednesday evening:

"The safety and well-being of our customers is a top priority. At Sodexo, we take pride in our strong performance in food safety and maintain strict adherence to procedures and guidelines that lead to clean operations and safe, nutritious food. 

"We are aware of the incident at Albany County School District One and are working with District representatives in monitoring the situation closely and are certainly concerned for the well-being of those students involved.

"The yuca served in Albany County Schools was not part of our student nutrition menu, rather it was a small tasting sample we offered as part of our efforts to make students aware of a wider range of fruit and vegetable choices."