When I was growing up, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich nearly every day in my school lunch. Now I teach in a nut-free classroom and meticulously read ingredient labels in the grocery store before putting anything into my cart. I am well-trained in managing a family with multiple allergies and dietary challenges, but it wasn’t a choice. One week, our family could eat anything, and the next thing we knew, we had a “safe food list.” That was more than ten years ago.
Today, we’re still a food-allergy family, although it’s more like background music than a theme song. My kids have taught me that food allergies make them smarter about what they eat, careful about plans we make, and respectful of other people’s differences. I’d like to share seven things based on our experience.
1. Allergen-free food doesn’t exist.
The top eight food allergens are peanuts, eggs, milk, wheat, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and soy. But a person can be allergic to something else, or a combination of many things. I know what my family can’t eat, but another food-allergy parent probably has a different safe food list. There is no such thing as allergen-free food. When something is labeled “school-safe,” it’s usually peanut-free, as peanuts are a very common allergen, but the food is still not safe for the non-peanut food allergy people.
Once, I overheard a person describe a container of ice cream as “safe for kids with allergies,” but when I asked them, “Which allergies?” – they didn’t know. Turns out, another food-allergy parent had provided the ice cream that was safe for her child, and the misconception had spread that it was “allergy safe” in general. What is safe for one family could be tragic for another.
2. Your food can’t touch my food.
Imagine I’m making food for a party and putting dog food into a bowl at the same time. Would you want me to use the same spoon to serve the guests? What if I made a casserole and told you there was only dog food on half of it? Would you want a bite from the other half? When an allergen ends up in something due to packaging, preparation, or how it’s served, it’s called cross-contamination. This is why it’s so hard for us to trust food made by someone else. If the allergen that affects my children is even in your kitchen, it could be in your recipe by accident. Have you ever used one measuring cup to get flour and sugar, or one knife to get peanut butter and jelly? I know it may seem like a small amount, but a little bit of an allergen can cause a severe reaction.
3. Every food-allergy parent has an event that changed everything.
If you don’t believe a child’s food allergy is real, imagine seeing a child with his leg in a cast. Would you say to the parent of that child, “I don’t think his leg is really broken. Has he tried jumping on a trampoline?” Surely you would expect the family had an x-ray done,
a doctor put on the cast, and a plan was put in place to care for their child. Food allergies are like that. At some point, a food-allergy parent has experienced an unforgettable moment when their child ate regular food, something bad happened, and they received a doctor’s diagnosis.
For us, it was a 9-1-1 call at our son’s first birthday party after he bit a cupcake. Then we had an ambulance ride and an ER visit thanks to a crumb. After that, every meal, party, celebration, school event, and holiday took consideration to prevent another reaction.
4. Epinephrine can save a life, and you can help.
People with a life-threatening food allergy should always have their epinephrine auto-injector, often generically referred to as an “epi-pen.” There are several different kinds available, but they all have instructions printed on the case. During a severe allergic reaction, epinephrine could save a life. You can help by learning the signs of anaphylaxis. There’s a 15-minute online course created by FARE (Food Allergy Research Education) at foodallergy.org.
Believe me, I know just the thought of administering epinephrine can seem scary because it needs to be injected. For the parent of a child who has food allergies, do you know what’s scarier than an injection? The thought of her child dying.
5. I never want to use epinephrine.
Do I want to see my child have a life-threatening reaction, realize I must save his life (or hope someone else is present who can) by injecting him with a drug, call 9-1-1, ride in an ambulance, watch him get IVs, require hours of observation and treatment, pray he’s okay, pay hospital and ambulance bills, and explain to him later that I made a mistake by allowing him to eat something that caused his reaction? Nope. Nope. Nope. Epinephrine is the emergency response to a life in danger, and even though we always carry it, we never want to need it.
6. Food-free classrooms would be awesome.
One out of every five times epinephrine is administered at school, it’s for students (or staff) with a previously unknown allergy. That means kids are leaving for school in the morning without a known allergy, and parents are picking their kids up that day from the hospital. Someone in the school, trained to recognize anaphylaxis, intervened because they believed the child’s life was in danger. When I worry about food in the classroom for rewards, instruction, or parties, I am thinking about your kids as well as my own.
7. Food allergies are not something to joke about.
When you see food-allergy bullying in movies or television, talk about it with your kids. Remind them it’s never okay to use a food allergy as a threat or to intimidate another child. Food-allergy punch lines in movies and television shows often minimize how serious a reaction can be. A life-threatening reaction isn’t a joke for a child who has already experienced a life-threatening reaction, or fears he might have one in the future.
Adults may remember a time when no one had an allergy, but our kids won’t. Nearly one in thirteen kids under eighteen has a food allergy. For them, it’s normal to check ingredients and read food labels. They know some friends can’t have nuts and some friends need to bring their own snacks to parties. Please talk about food allergies as you would any other medical condition – with compassion. The kids will learn how to treat one another from how we treat each other.