The African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," rings especially true for parents. Who among us hasn't relied on others in our "village" for last-minute babysitting, help getting a stroller down stairs or grabbing a runaway toddler headed into the street?
It's tempting for us parents who have dodged the food allergy bullet to dismiss this issue as "someone else's problem." Isn't it hard enough to meet our own kids' needs without worrying about someone else's? In this context, restrictions on our own food options to accommodate kids with allergies may be viewed as an infringement on our rights: Why should we be inconvenienced by nut-free play spaces, daycares or schools just because someone else's child has an allergy?
Parents of kids with food allergies, however, see the world through very different lenses. To them, each new school day, birthday party, class trip or play date is a potential minefield that could conclude with a harrowing trip to the emergency room. Forty percent of children with a food allergy have already experienced a severe or life-threatening allergic reaction.
Imagine, if you will, how terrifying an acute allergic reaction must be for both parent and child: vomiting; a tight, itchy rash or hives spreading across the body; face swelling up; maybe even trouble breathing or skin turning blue. If you think this isn't something that concerns you as a parent of a child without allergies, I'd ask you to imagine instead how you'd feel if your kiddo's peanut-butter paw prints on the jungle gym caused another child to have an anaphylactic reaction before your very eyes?
Food allergy is a serious problem in our collective village, and we all have to worry about it.
So I polled moms of kids with food allergies, asking: What do you wish we parents of kids without food allergies would do to help make your child safer? Here's what they told me:
1. Take it seriously. As more and more people adopt restricted diets for reasons of digestive intolerance – avoiding ingredients like gluten, dairy, soy or fructose – some express weariness at having to cater to the increasingly demanding needs of their dinner companions, relatives or houseguests.
Many express skepticism about the medical necessity of such dietary restrictions and dismiss them as a lifestyle choice or flexible "food preference." So let's be clear: food allergy is NOT a lifestyle choice. Avoiding allergens can be a matter of life and death for allergic kids, and they depend on all of us – teachers, school staff, camp counselors, friends' parents, babysitters, restaurant wait staff, candy-wielding bank tellers – to take their allergies seriously. Case in point: Someone goes to the emergency room for a food-related reaction every three minutes.
2. Save your nuts for home (or car, or stroller or other personal spaces in which contact with other kids is likely to be limited). On a related note, if your child is snacking on nuts at any point in the day – whether at home or out – it's a great idea to clean their hands and faces with soap and water or wet wipes (not just antibacterial gel, which doesn't get rid of the protein) before letting them loose into a shopping cart, playground, school, library or other shared public space.
There's a reason that nuts in particular are singled out for restriction in some public spaces: Peanuts and tree nuts are among the most likely allergens to trigger a severe reaction in people with food allergies. In fact, available data suggest that they account for the majority of fatal or near-fatal anaphylactic reactions in the United States. (Of course, other allergens – including milk and fish – can induce similarly severe reactions.)
In my household, nuts are a daily staple, whether in the form of almond-flour muffins, pistachios or peanut butter sandwiches. But I also keep a jar of sunflower seed or soy nut butter in the fridge for sandwiches or snacks destined for consumption in crowded, public kiddie places. It's not at all inconvenient, my kids don't even notice the difference, and I take advantage of these nut-free occasions as an excuse to add an extra bit of nutritional variety to our family's diet. I'm told that parents of kids with food allergies appreciate such gestures more than we can imagine.
3. Share toys, not food. In our zealousness to raise selfless kids who share, we may be putting kids with food allergies at risk inadvertently. If a child you don't know is hovering around your snacking kid, don't let him share food unless that child's caregiver has confirmed it's OK.
Parents of younger children with allergies in particular depend on us villagers to help them control what goes into their kids' mouths in that split second they've looked away. Relatedly, many parents of school-aged children with whom I spoke reported that, in their communities, classroom birthday parties are increasingly celebrated with tokens like stickers or pencils – rather than cupcakes. This ensures that all kids in the class can be included and helps keep the school environment safe for all.
4. Talk to your kids about (food allergy) bullying. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that one-third of kids with a food allergy have been bullied because of their allergy. While all bullying can leave long-term emotional scars, food allergy bullying can pose a more immediate physical threat as well.
According to John Lehr, CEO of the non-profit group Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), food allergy bullying can sometimes take the form of a prank that can have harmful and potentially dangerous consequences. To raise awareness, FARE has developed a campaign called "Food Allergy Bullying: It's Not a Joke," with online video clips and resources for parents and teachers; the materials are available online at www.foodallergy.org.
Lehr points out that, nowadays, food is available everywhere and in every situation. For kids with food allergy, this means that risk is omnipresent. Their parents are on constant vigil for accidental exposure at every turn, and it can be an overwhelming task at times. The more educated about food allergy that we are as neighbors, friends, relatives and members of the greater community, the better support we can be to the guardians of our littlest villagers.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.