Today’s guest mom, attorney and author Amanda Brice, is covering a topic that literally makes my heart race and my breath shorten as I write this sentence! Like Amanda, I’m the mother of a child with a serious allergy, so serious that a bite of the wrong food could be life-threatening. Living with this possibility all the time is not easy. Thanks for listening to Amanda and for trying to understand what families like ours go through. And if you deal with serious allergies in your household, just know that you’re not alone. –Kieran
“References that include everything from Snooki to Chewbacca will have you laughing out loud.” – Romantic Times
“It’s good, frothy fun. Like a hot chocolate with a marshmallow and lots of sprinkles on top. I defy you to read this book and not laugh out loud. It’s full of wit and humour.” – Bookish Trish from Between the Lines blog
Mmm…hot chocolate with marshmallows and sprinkles… But in our house, that marshmallow will be egg-white-free and the chocolate safe from cross-contamination with nuts.
Reviewers tend to agree that one of my strongest points as a writer is my humor, and I do love writing funny. But I’m not going to be funny today because the subject of today’s blog is no laughing matter, and that’s food allergies.
Perhaps it’s an unusual topic for a blog titled “Peanut Butter on the Keyboard,” but the photo at the top of the website makes clear that kids can make messes. It’s all cute until those messes put others at risk.
Recently Hollywood has taken to getting cheap laughs by making fun of food allergies, the parents who deal with them, and the kids who have them.
Nick Jr. was in the crossfire of food allergy parents this past spring when their Nick Mom programming (that begins at 10 pm EST, so presumably kids should be in bed, but that’s only 7 pm on the West Coast and I don’t know about your kids, but mine are wide awake and watching Nick Jr. at 7 pm) featured a highly inappropriate skit called “Taking the ‘Food’ Out of ‘Bake Sale’” in which a bunch of moms guffawed about how put-upon they are with all these fad diets today. The video in question had a bullying undertone, implying that families are overreacting to nothing.
This summer, the Smurfs 2 movie also jumped on the “all these crazy parents are overreacting” bandwagon by including a scene mocking an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts, a potentially fatal reaction, for cheap laughs. Shortly before a character ate a corndog that had been cooked in undeclared peanut oil (after which he reacted and was rushed to the hospital), his stereotypical helicopter parents, in true caricature style, made their demands clear – his diet must be organic, BPA-free, gluten-free, peanut-free, food-free. The implication was that parents were just making up food allergies – everything needs to be peanut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, etc, because of overreacting parents. They were not just making sure all the kids in the party scene could eat the cake. They were making sure everyone laughs at the gluten-free-peanut-free-vegan-cake-made-with-love as if to say “how hilarious it is that kids these days need all this special food?!” Insert audience eyeroll here. Ho, ho, ho, barrel of laughs!
Even if the ingestion of peanuts was inadvertent rather than bullying, when did poisoning a child become a comic moment? It was an unnecessary scene, making fun of parents and their kids in what was supposed to be a nice family movie.
I know it might seem like it’s not that big of a deal: “It’s a joke. Relax.” But that’s the point. It’s not. Not to kids who have to deal with food allergies every day. Kids who constantly have to inspect everything they eat so their throats don’t swell up and they die can’t just relax. Nor can their parents.
Sadly, it seems that the only way to get many people to change their mind about their belief that the food allergy epidemic is blown out of proportion is for them to experience it firsthand. Time columnist Joel Stein learned the hard way that it’s real. Having previously written a piece that began “Your kid doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special,” he blamed the epidemic on over-reporting. A year later, his one-year-old son suffered anaphylaxis to tree nuts: “sneezing, then breaking out in hives, then rubbing his eyes, then crying through welded-shut eyes, then screaming and finally, vomiting copiously at the entrance of the Children’s Hospital emergency room an hour after eating his first batch of blended mixed nuts.” Believe me, this is the worst type of eating crow.
The recent death of a girl at summer camp (as a result of eating Rice Krispie treats cross-contaminated by peanuts) underscores the seriousness. This is why it is completely reprehensible to make a joke out of a kid needing an EpiPen.
You wouldn’t joke about a kid having cancer. Or autism. Or using a wheelchair. So why is this acceptable? It’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a health concern. A health crisis, I would argue. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), this potentially deadly disease affects 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18. That’s roughly two in every classroom.
A 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that there was an 18% increase in food allergy between 1997 and 2007, although there is no clear answer as to why. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room. Every three minutes. Reactions to food can range from a mild response (such as eczema, stomach cramps, or an itchy mouth) to anaphylaxis, a severe a potentially deadly reaction.
I know the stereotype is that food allergy parents are overprotective. And maybe we are. But that’s because we have to be vigilant. And we’re not unreasonable. I know people like to joke about our crazy demands, but I promise you that we don’t expect you to provide special food for our children at your private party. We just want to know the ingredients so we can make our own decisions. In fact, most food allergy parents I know are among the most low-maintenance party guests around. Not only do we bring our own food and help chaperone, but we help you clean up afterwards!
As for school-sponsored events, we encourage you to consider alternative treats. To quote the excellent article A Mom’s Perspective: A Guide to Registering Your Food Allergic Child for Kindergarten, is “it really so much trouble to substitute an unsafe pretzel with a safer brand that costs the same and was available at the same store? I wondered how resentful they would be if someone handed their child a homemade cookie baked with arsenic!”
Meet Ballerina Girl and Monkey Boy.
Ballerina Girl is anaphylactic to tree nuts (those are all nuts that grow in trees, such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, or pine nuts – please note that although peanuts tend to be the big allergen you here about the most in the media, it’s not actually a nut – it’s a legume; tree nut allergy is different, but no less dangerous), gets hives from sesame seeds, an itchy sensation when she eats raw mango (although cooked is fine), and eczema from eggs.
Although we avoid all of the above, the ones we are most vigilant about obviously are the nuts. Hives, itching, stomach pain – all of that is uncomfortable and we don’t want to inflict unnecessary suffering on her. But the fact of the matter is that you don’t die from a single accidental exposure, whereas with nuts she could. It is life-threatening.
Even worse, a child doesn’t need to eat one of their allergens to have an anaphylactic reaction; contact with another child or an item that has been exposed to the allergen – such as might occur when a child shares scissor or a pencil sharpener and then rubs his eyes) can sometimes be enough to trigger onset.
Monkey Boy fortunately doesn’t have any allergies. However, he does have a milk protein intolerance and a rice intolerance. (Yes, I know. A half-Asian kid who can’t eat rice. Who knew?) Ingesting any amount of dairy in any form (not just milk, cheese, and ice cream, but casein, whey, and other forms that we have to check carefully on product packaging) or rice can cause hours and hours of severe cramping and screaming, and occasionally vomiting. For months we just thought he had colic. Well, colic is a catch-all term that refers to a baby who screams and you don’t know why. Turns out in his case it was because I was breastfeeding him and inadvertently poisoning him with my own diet. We now diligently avoid rice and dairy to keep him from pain, but thank goodness it won’t kill him.
Ballerina Girl carries an EpiPen because of her potential for anaphylaxis. We also keep pre-filled spoons of Benadryl around. We don’t need to take such precautions with Monkey Boy (and it wouldn’t make a difference anyway, since his is an intolerance rather than an allergy).
Although the word “allergy” makes people think of stuffy noses, a food allergy is actually an immune response – your body mistakes something in food as harmful and attacks it. It can affect your entire body, not just your stomach or sinuses. Symptoms may include:
Rash, hives, or itchy skin
Shortness of breath
Sudden drop in blood pressure, trouble swallowing, or breathing (CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY)
The most famous food allergy is peanut allergy, but the Big 8 allergens that the FDA requires food manufacturers to list on labels also include tree nuts, eggs, milk, shellfish, fish, soy, and wheat. These eight foods account for an estimated 90% of all allergic reactions.
When a food irritates your stomach or your body can’t properly digest it, that’s an intolerance. Symptons include:
Gas, cramps, or bloating
Irritability or nervousness
The most famous food intolerances are Celiac disease (gluten intolerance) and lactose intolerance.
So…what should we as parents do? For the record, I support food-free classrooms, but not nut-free schools. (Unless there is no separate cafeteria and the children must eat in their classrooms, in which case I support nut-free schools, such as at my daughter’s preschool.) Removing the food completely from the classroom is becoming a more widely accepted accommodation as children with severe food allergies are protected under 504 plans as qualifying under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In an ideal world, I’d love to have all nuts and peanuts eradicated from the face of the planet, but I know that’s not happening, at least in this lifetime. Besides, while most anaphylaxis is the result of nut and peanut allergies, and most other allergies present in more moderate (though uncomfortable) reactions, some children are anaphylactic to milk or fish or shellfish, just as an example. So are we going to pit seriousness of children’s allergies against one another? If all allergenic foods are banned, what would the children eat? Therefore, I support learning to reduce the risk (such as keeping food out of the classroom entirely) and practicing good hygiene (teeth brushing and hand-washing with soap and water – allergens are proteins, not germs, so use of hand sanitizers is not sufficient), rather than outright bans.
However, if your child does attend a nut-free school, please abide by this policy. It was put in place to protect, not to cause hardship. There are many nut-free snacks and lunches your child can bring instead of PB&J sandwiches. Snacksafely.com recently released the 2013 Safe Snack Guide, which is a list of commonly available commercial snacks intended as a guide for schools, organizations, sports leagues, clubs, parties, play dates, and other events where snacks may be brought in the presence of people with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and/or eggs.
Peanut butter derives much of its taste from the roasting process. There are a number of other spreads available at the store that use a similar roasting process and taste remarkably similar to peanut butter, such as sunflower seed butter or soy nut butter. Similar doesn’t mean “exactly the same,” so you might need to ease your child into it. Simply mix ¾ peanut butter with ¼ alternative spread when lunching at home, and then change the proportion to more of the alternative spread over time.
Voila! Simple, and it will do so much to help your kids’ allergic friends. Even if your school doesn’t have a nut-free zone, you may decide that you prefer the taste of one of these peanut butter alternatives. And we can all breathe easier knowing that everyone is covered.
Or if you’re in the mood for homemade, I list some of my own favorite recipes on my “Extras” section of my website. Just because a food is “safe” doesn’t mean it’s not delicious. Each of the recipes on my list is devoid of the Big 8 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, soy, shellfish, fish, wheat), so if you don’t have those allergies or have other ones, you may need to substitute.
You see, I’m not just an allergy mom, but the heroine in my YA mystery series also has food allergies. I wrote the first book, in which my heroine suffers a reaction after the villain switches her “safe” Pad Thai with the regular kind, before my daughter was even born. At the time, I just thought that it would be an interesting and topical subplot, because as scary as the thought might be, food really can be used as a weapon in this way. In fact, the book was published two months before my daughter ever suffered her first allergic reaction to nuts. Although I’d done research when writing those scenes, nothing could prepare me for the firsthand experience of watching your child’s face swell, the itching, the coughing, the wheezing, the gasping, and finally the vomiting. There is nothing scarier than not knowing what to do for her or how to help her.
Amanda Brice lives just outside of Washington, DC with her husband, a 3 ½-year-old daughter, and a 20-month-old son. An intellectual property attorney for a large federal government agency, she combines her love of writing with her legal career by speaking on basic copyright and trademark law on the writers’ conference circuit. A two-time Golden Heart finalist, she is the author of three books in the Dani Spevak Mystery Series, and has a YA time travel romance series beginning this fall with 1816 Candles. You can learn more about Amanda and her books at her website.