The Evolution of My Feelings About Food Allergies – From Annoyance to Empathy to Mild Activist

There is a toddler museum near my house that doesn’t allow any peanut products to be brought inside.  When I first saw that rule, I was mildly annoyed.  I know peanut allergies can be really serious, even fatal, but banning any trace of peanuts from an entire museum?  It seemed extreme.  Still, it’s not like my kids are eating peanut products 24/7, so it was more thought provoking than practically inconvenient.

food allergy cartoon

Then, in March, the NYT Magazine’s cover story was about how to desensitize kids with severe allergies by exposing them little by little to the things that could kill them.  I felt so lucky, knock on wood, reading about the trials that these kids have gone through related to their food allergies and even the extreme treatment that they will have to endure for the rest of their lives to live “allergy free.”  One kid almost died when milk splashed on her skin!  I was near tears when one of my kids had a stomach flu and kept puking.  I can’t imagine the vigilance required and stress related to having a kid with severe food allergies.  I started feeling more empathy and less annoyance.

More recently, I read a Slate article and realized that not only should I empathize, but I can help in really simple ways that don’t take much effort at all.  The playground shouldn’t be stressful and while any parent of a kid with severe allergies is going to be on high alert, the rest of us should avoid anything that could contribute to other kids ending up in the hospital.  Here are some tips from the article:

  • Don’t let your kid eat while playing.  He could drop pieces of food or wipe tiny traces of his food crumbs/allergens on communal play equipment.
  • Don’t leave food unattended.  Those of us with kids know how fast little kids can be when they want something.  If a kid that doesn’t fully understand his allergies grabs a peanut, it could end very, very badly.
  • After your kid is done eating, use wipes to wash her hands.  Hand sanitizer doesn’t kill the proteins in most foods that cause allergic reactions, and tiny amounts of such proteins can be lethal.

For me, I won’t be bringing anything with peanuts or eggs to communal spaces and I will try to avoid milk as well.  Why risk it?  My kids can eat these things at home.  I’m also going to try to start paying attention to the packaging of our common “to go” snacks (Cheerios, squeezy pouches, and puffs).  If they have trace amounts of common allergens like nuts, milk, or eggs, or are made in a facility with these things, I will avoid bringing them to communal places.  Of course, I can’t eliminate anything that any kid could be allergic to, but I can certainly be more mindful of my actions.  I won’t let my kids eat while playing and will make sure to thoroughly clean their hands, mouth, and area around where they ate before leaving.  As soon as my kids are old enough to understand, I will explain to them why it’s important to do these things so that they understand that their carelessness could be really dangerous to other kids.  I think this is a good opportunity to teach about community responsibility.

Now, lest you think I am some altruistic, selfless person, I’m not going to be so restrictive that my kids start feeling like they have severe food allergies themselves, but the least I can do, and that any of us can do, is to be more thoughtful about my actions.

Ok, so that settles it – I’m going to be a more thoughtful parent when using communal spaces, but will it make a difference?  I mean, how prevalent are severe allergies?  Is it common enough that I will actually make it easier for parents and kids who go to the playgrounds we go to?  It certainly seems like more kids have severe, life threatening allergies than when I was growing up, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention because I was a kid or maybe there’s just more reporting about it.  I mean, there was that Freaks and Geeks episode when Bill almost died when Alan put a peanut in his sandwich, but other than that, I don’t remember food allergies being a big deal.  I don’t remember anyone ever carrying an EpiPen around for anything other than bee stings and I think I might have only seen that in My Girl.  So, I did some quick research to find out some basic information about the prevalence of food allergies.  Here’s what I found:

Wow – this is scary stuff and I am so grateful that my kids don’t have severe food allergies.  Even though there are not many deaths related to food allergies, that doesn’t mean that close calls are not a terrifying experience for the kids and their families.

It makes me think that we should have some government intervention, though I’m not in favor of broad food bans.  How simple would it be to have eating areas in parks and post rules about cleaning up your allergens that could kill someone else’s kid?  What if these little actions that could be so helpful became as common as picking up after your dog?  If you didn’t do these things, you’d feel the silent scorn of the other parents and we all know how powerful that is!  Hmmm, maybe I will write a letter to my city’s parks department right now …

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