There was a recent article about a couple vacationing in Barcelona who had to cut their trip short and fly home to New York when the coronavirus broke out. They described the painstaking ordeal of having to wipe down their seats on the airplane and distrusted the safety of the food they were served. They even discussed the frightening possibility of getting sick on the plane and what medications they had, if necessary. We are in the midst of a pandemic like the world has never before seen. Why, then, does this story sound like something I have heard before?
After years of travelling with my food allergic daughter, this setup sounds eerily familiar. As a food allergy mom, this sort of ultra paranoid activity and constant anxiety is what allows me to function and maintain a life outside the home. I am so used to sanitizing the area where my daughter is going to eat, and questioning the food being served to her, that this seems second nature these days. The very rituals that are currently inconveniencing millions of Americans is my regular routine. Welcome to my world.
Suddenly people are second guessing how they open doorknobs, push elevator buttons and use the water fountain. Is it clean? Is it safe? Will it make it difficult to breathe? Again, this is not new territory for food allergy sufferers, who are constantly questioning whether a surface is safe. Is it ok for my daughter to play clapping games with her friends after lunch? Only if they haven’t eaten a PBJ. Things like peanut butter and dairy leave sticky traces behind and can be a huge problem for someone who is allergic. And by huge problem I mean guaranteed anaphylaxis. Once a substance is on the hands, it can very easily get into the bloodstream by rubbing one’s eyes or putting the contaminated fingers in one’s mouth. Just as a reminder, I am not talking about the Coronavirus, I’m talking about food allergies. Or am I?
Now that you have Coronavirus on your mind and you are being ultra careful about what and where you eat, I will leave you with one question. If you saw President Trump’s latest press conference in the Rose Garden about the Coronavirus, you saw him shake hands with his many CEO guest speakers. What if he had the virus? What if they did? What if shaking hands isn’t safe? Now what if this press conference was after lunch and President Trump ate peanut butter? If you knew you could get so sick you could end up in the hospital and maybe even die, would you shake his hand?
Welcome to my world.
I’m fed up. Just this week I watched as life-threatening food allergies were used for entertainment in not one but two productions; the first was a show, the second was a movie. It is estimated that over 9 million people saw the cold open of last week’s SNL where Mr. Peanut admitted to roasting in hell because he “took out a lot of first graders with peanut allergies.” Since when is it funny to joke about dead or sick children?
And millions more have seen the Korean film “Parasite,” nominated in six Oscar categories, including best picture and director. The movie was spectacular but that’s not the point. In three distinct scenes, the actors set out to hurt a character who has a severe allergy to peaches; she ended up dead about ⅔ of the way through the movie. Again, this depravity passing as entertainment is beneath us, and I don't just mean the backyard makeshift grave the woman's body was dumped into.
My husband and I watched in horror, not because it was a scary movie, which it was, but because we know how terrifying it is to experience anaphylaxis, as our daughter has 11 times. And we just helped our daughter survive the attacks, she is the one who actually experienced it. It felt wrong for us to watch food allergies be used for cheap laughs or blatant abuse. It is wrong. There wasn’t anything humorous about it at all. And us squirmy and uncomfortable and angry as this made us feel, we couldn't imagine how our daughter would react to these scenes. Well, we kinda could - she would feel horrible and continue to see herself as a victim. We want something better for our family and the millions of people who are directly affected by food allergies every day.
For the 26 million American adults suffering from life-threatening food allergies, or the 5.6 million US children, this is not just a math problem. It’s a complex socio-medical phenomenon that has no solutions. For every joke or trick involving food allergies, there are fears of copycat acts. We are up in arms about violent video games resulting in an increase in domestic violence, mass shootings and mental illness. But what about movies and shows that make jokes out of our kids’ disabilities?
Food allergy bullying is a real thing. One in 13 American children have a food allergy, and nearly a third of those say they have been bullied because of those allergies, some of which can be life-threatening, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Food Allergy Research & Education. About a third of children with food allergies said they had been bullied because of the allergy, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics. Children reported that their classmates and peers teased them, threw food or waved it in their faces, excluded or threatened them based on the allergy, and performed other acts of bullying.
As a result of food allergy bullying, some kids have died. More kids have been charged with aggravated assault or expelled from school. I've read the stories.... kids put pineapple on their hands before hi-fiving a fellow student. Kids wiped a food allergen on their teacher's desk. Kids slapped a slice of cheese on a classmate's neck (he died). Luckily most don't die but the increase in taunts and threats serve to elevate the anxiety and fear that goes along with having food allergies. There is so much risk involved with allergic children and adults just being around their allergens, not to mention having them purposely put near them or underfoot to get a laugh or some revenge.
Aren’t we better than this? With millions already at risk in their own schools and homes, do we really need millions more laughing at us and our kids? Getting ideas for how to harm someone? Laughing at first-graders who died? I don’t think so.
So for all the times that our daughter has been rushed to the hospital after injecting herself with epinephrine, and for all the other millions of kids who have done the same, and for all the families who have lost someone to food allergies, I am standing up and speaking out. The true horror is that allergies continue to rise and there is no cure. There is nothing funny about kids being hurt by their food allergens.
Food allergies should not be used for entertainment value. Can't we trade in the EpiPen for a ballpoint pen and start writing some new jokes and scripts that aren’t so incredibly offensive to the millions of food allergy sufferers? There are more of us than them, let’s use our collective voices to raise awareness that these jokes are not funny, can be harmful and at a minimum makes so many of us feel helpless and anxious.
If you, too, are FED UP with food allergy bullying and violence passing as humor in our TV shows and movies, please share this article on your social media pages. Maybe someone will see it who can make a difference in 1 person's life.
Psychology Today, Empathy Tomorrow
I see a lot of articles about empathy, or lack of it, when it comes to understanding food allergies. There is great communication and discussion within the food allergy world, about the need for people on airlines, in schools and in our homes to understand that our children are deathly allergic to certain foods. The problem is, the rest of the people we want to reach are not involved in this dialogue.
This creates an us-versus-them mentality that is full of misunderstandings and underestimations. We erroneously conclude that these people are selfish, disrespectful, careless, and lacking in empathy, and they don't get that we just want our kids to be safe. What if there was a reasonable explanation for this gap, rooted in science, that offers reasons for why the chasm between these two groups is so wide. According to a psychologist, the difference between the two groups simply comes down to experience.
Gia Rosenblum, PhD is a licensed psychologist in private practice who writes about the psychosocial issues of food allergies. In her recent Psychology Today article, Resources for Understanding and Coping with Food Allergies, Rosenblum talks about “significant relationship stress” that can be caused by food allergies. Been there, done that - as my daughter’s severe food allergies have caused stress between me and everyone from her girl scout troop leader to her school principal to her teachers, friends’ parents, and even our own family members.
According to Rosenblum, this is because we have seen the reactions, read the articles, taken our kid to the hospital, etc. and they have not. Simply put, those who are lucky enough to have never witnessed anaphylaxis tend to minimize food allergies, and those who have, don’t. And this can put deep strains on the best of relationships.
Rosenblum offers some explanations rooted firmly in psychology. It’s been a long time since I was a psych major in college, but the terms confirmation bias and availability heuristic rang a distant bell. It turns out that as far as our brains go, it’s really really hard to change behaviors and incorporate new evidence. Our brains like the well worn neural pathways, and when a new attitude, belief or behavior is suggested, our brains are as stubborn as the uncle who doesn’t want to put that bowl of nuts away.
Confirmation bias looks at how new information is integrated with existing beliefs to influence behavior. To the unindoctrinated, allergies can be anything from hay fever to insect bites. Not anaphylaxis, and certainly not death. Take the belief that small amounts of food couldn’t hurt anyone. It’s plausible that someone thinks food allergies are like their dairy intolerance and the result of eating an offending food is a stomach ache. What they do not know is that a tiny particle of the food allergen is all it can take to trigger a reaction; sometimes even dust particles in the air can cause a reaction even without any consumption at all. Which is why cross-contamination is the culprit of so many reactions.
Since people understand allergies in the context of what they have experienced, they can easily confuse a legitimate food allergy with their vegan diets, gluten intolerance, bee stings or even their dog’s allergies. I used to think it was selfish, rude and ignorant on their part. But this article has me thinking twice. Maybe they just don’t know what they don’t know.
You see, people believe they know what healthy looks like. They see my daughter living an active, productive life and most of the time she really is a happy, healthy, well-adjusted person. What they don’t get is that this can change in a heartbeat from peanut butter residue on the refrigerator handle. Food allergies are recognized as a disability, but it is an invisible disability. People can’t see it. It’s hard to imagine that someone so full of life can be just one forkful away from anaphylaxis. But for those who know, danger lurks everywhere and can strike anytime. Any reaction has to be treated as life threatening, involving shots of epinephrine, IVs of anti-histamines and steroids and a mandatory 4-hour trip to the ER. Any parent who has survived their child’s anaphylactic attack is not going to be lax with the food. While they know too little, we know too much.
A second theory offered by Rosenblum is the availability heuristic, which suggests that if something happened before, we think it is more likely to happen again. If your child has food allergies but has never had a reaction, she might be less likely to remember her EpiPen. Conversely, the opposite is true as well. Because my daughter knows anaphylaxis and knows her EpiPen reversed her symptoms, she will never leave home without them. As explained by Rosenblum, recent and intense emotions from past experiences are easily recalled.
For me and my daughter, there is another layer of the availability heuristic at play. My husband, her father, passed away at age 31 from a sudden, severe asthma attack. I was pregnant at the time - my daughter never got to meet her father. By the time she was in kindergarten, she was diagnosed with asthma and a peanut allergy after exposure on a playdate. Her test numbers were off the charts and her doctor squeezed my arm, looked into my eyes and said “you need to know how serious this is.” I was beside myself with panic and anxiety, thinking that what happened to him might happen to her. As she got older she also developed allergies to soy protein, chickpeas, peas, and lentils. She has anxiety that she is also going to meet the same fate as her biological father. We actually talk about that, and it crushes me to know that this is weighing on her. Imagine all the anxiety a food allergy kid has to carry around, plus the weight of her genetic parent’s demise. It’s almost too much. It is too much.
So, how do we cross the chasm? How do we get the non-allergy people to learn what we know, and have the understanding and empathy required to reduce relationship stress? The real question is, can food allergies be taken seriously without someone suffering from anaphylaxis or death? Does someone need to die on an airline before the crews will stop offering nuts? Does your child have to become unconscious in the school cafeteria for them to understand cross-contamination? Do I have to continue to take my daughter to the ER from family events because they continue to sneak pbjs? I hope not. But with some strategic media campaigns, policy changes and sharing of stories maybe awareness can be shared and empathy can be attained. And maybe we can learn some empathy too as we education the rest of the world.
As another school year kicks off, I emailed a list of reminders to keep my sophomore daughter safe. 3 out of the 16 were specific to her food allergies. While I am as concerned as other parents about sexual assault, party culture, stolen bicycles and driving safely, I look at this list and see that my top concern remains food allergy safety.
Does it bum me out that for kids without food allergies theirs would be a list of 13 reminders? Kind of. But more importantly, I have to continually drive into her brain the importance of eating carefully, carrying life saving medication and knowing when to use it, while incorporating advice based on new products that could cause a fatal reaction and recent experiences that landed her in the ER.
I know, I know. I need to let her fly and live in the real world. She does. So do I. A world where every week I read about date rape, fraternity hazing, car accidents, vaping and collapsed lungs. We all are fearing the same things for our kids. But as an allergy mom I also see the stories about the dangers of food allergies. I know she knows everything on this list. I’ve done my job but reminders never hurt. If anything, it shows that I care and that I'm thinking about her. The full list is at the end of this blog. Feel free to share it as it's a good list for students everywhere (at least 13 of them).
So let's break this down and take a look at these 3 extra reminders that as food allergy parents we all have to add to this important conversation, but that most kids or parents probably never even consider.
#1 - First and always, always bring 2 epipens and use them at the first signs of anaphylaxis.
Holding steady at #1 is access to epinepherine. My daughter is very good at remembering her epipens. Despite this, she has had 8 anaphylactic attacks. But because of this, she won't easily forget them. She knows what reactions are like and she knows how every single time an epipen has saved her life. Like, within minutes she is restored to health. It's not just mom nagging... she legit knows. Yet it's still at the top of my list. In my opinion you can't hear this one too many times. #epifirstepifast #toomuchisneverenough
#6 There are beers and vodkas that are made with peanuts, it’s a new trend. One of the beers is actually made by Planters. Stick to what you bring.
Debuting at number six, is this terrifying news flash. Peanuts are now in alcohol. Tucked nicely in between cautions about date rape drugs and kidnapping, is a word of warning about peanut flavored alcohol products. For parents of college aged kids, it's yet another serious drinking danger. Food allergy moms and dads are already hoping their kids are making good decisions and now this, when they may be intoxicated, not thinking clearly, inhibitions lowered, having a good time. Move over roofies, there is a new danger lurking in your shot glass. There is a Van Gogh peanut butter & jelly vodka. Yes, really! What college student wouldn’t want to drink that? (Besides ours, obviously). As a parent this is beyond scary. I have to trust my daughter. But I also need to make sure she knows about these products. #thanksplanters #thanksvangogh #sticktospikedseltzer
Note: for a list of alcohol containing nuts and peanuts check here: http://www.theallergyfreelife.com/alcoholwithnuts/. The Planters collaboration for Mr. IPA-Nut, featured in this blog’s photo, was launched in 2018 after this list was published. (I’m sure there are more but that’s a blog post for another day.)
#11 Eat before you go to a party or concert or football game. This will reduce your risk of getting too drunk or eating something you might be allergic to.
Eating before going out is solid advice. It saves money. It saves time. It will absorb alcohol. You won’t be hangry. The list goes on. But there is a different context for this piece of advice from me to my daughter. Eating your own food also means you limit exposure to your allergens. Being prepared and considering eating needs in advance might be a challenge for kids whose attention spans are the size of a gnat. But it goes a long way towards keeping someone with food allergies safe and is worth repeating. I know she knows this one all too well.
One year ago this weekend, my daughter completed her first week of classes freshman year at college, 4,000 miles from home. She was looking forward to the big opening college football game for the season on Friday night of Labor Day weekend. To say she was emotional and stressed already was an understatement. She was struggling with her course load and doubting herself. She called me in tears during the day and we talked about some options. Sorority rush was the following morning. Last but not least she had to do laundry before the big game because she had to wear white, but didn’t have the money loaded on the right card. Panic was already in the air. (I still think stress contributed to her anaphylaxis but that’s yet another blog for another day!)
Yada yada… she didn’t eat and instead opted to get nachos at the game. She shouldn’t be allergic to nachos, beef, tortilla chips, cheese or any of the usual toppings. To this day it is a mystery. She doesn’t know if there were chickpeas used in the chips, or maybe soy protein in the taco meat. Or if her histamine levels were already raised because of the crushed peanut shells all over the ground. Regardless, she started feeling sick and recognized the signs of anaphylaxis. Week one of her freshman year at college. Sigh. I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate but now she eats before games and concerts and brings her own food. It is what it is.
So while there are plenty of dangers lurking for our kids, those with food allergies always have a couple extra. Making sure I remind my girl helps me sleep at night. What she does with this advice helps her succeed in life. Here’s to keeping ALL our kids safe in this coming school year.
Here’s the full list:
put your money where your mouth is
This is a real sign that is really hanging outside an ice cream shop in Woods Hole, MA. Every summer we stay in this quaint little Cape Cod village where my husband grew up and spend long sunny days with friends and family. Many things have not changed since my husband was a kid here, including the Candy Go Nuts shop, a little place that serves ice cream and bulk candy. But this sign is new. I noticed it last year for the first time. My heart sank a little more as I saw another door slam in the face of my food allergic daughter and our family. Not even welcome to walk inside.
Of course it also happens to be the place where all the kids hang out. Anyone with a serious food allergy, particularly to nuts, peanuts, or dairy, is probably not going to be too comfortable in this shop, based on its name alone. That's a no brainer. But my daughter always finds some wrapped candy or gum that is safe for her so she can be with her friends. But now it's just different. This sign tells me that customers with food allergies are not worth their time and effort. That they don't even want them inside. This sign is a big "FU" from this shop. Some might suggest that the sign is ok because it's better to know upfront an establishment cannot safely accommodate allergic customers. True, but sometimes it's not what you say it's how you say it.
When it comes to food allergies, the world can seem split between those who get it and those who do not. Schools are either nut free or the allergic kids get isolated to a special table at lunchtime or even worse face food allergy bullies. Airlines either embrace allergic customers by making announcements and not serving nuts or peanuts, or they mock us and kick us off planes. Restaurants either work with the customers to create safe meals and an environment of communication and training, or they slap a disclaimer on the menu and throw their hands in the air. Even family and friends get divvied up between those who will put some effort into accommodating your allergies because they love you and want you to be safe, and those who just want their pbj's where and when they want it.
We all have choices to make. When we use our wallets we can support those who work with us to keep everyone safe, and choose to not support those who don't. According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), "Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18. That's one in 13 children."
This tells me that we are a loyal and discriminating group. When looking at these numbers, make sure to multiply to include family members. Over 100 million strong is enough to make an economic impact. Lianne Mandelbaum, founder of No Nut Traveler and tireless advocate for safe airline travel for food allergic individuals, says it so well. "Those airlines that do it right will reap the economic benefit of a customer base that is loyal and repeat in a world full of choices."
Substitute airline with restaurant or school and you can see how the purchasing choices we make can have a financial effect on many types of businesses. And it works both ways - some establishments could lose customers, but some could also gain a repeat, loyal customer base. It's time we put our money where our mouths are (or are not as the case may be) and stop patronizing businesses who don't want to put the effort into keeping us safe and retaining our business.
I wonder how my daughter feels when she is told not to even come inside Candy Go Nuts with her friends. I sure know how it makes me feel. I guess after a while allergic kids get used to being excluded. I wish this were different but for now, this is how it just is. Maybe they could have phrased it differently, Maybe they could do what many ice cream shops have done which is evolve and welcome allergic customers with a dedicated soft serve station or clean scoop policy. But they don't. And for that reason, I'm taking Lianne's advice and using my wallet to support businesses who support food allergy customers and their safety. And we'll be getting our ice cream and candy elsewhere.
pouring milk on the grill ... and other chefs' hacks that could be a problem for food allergic diners
I just googled "pouring milk on grill flames" and found nothing. Yet the chef I work with is confident it is the best way to address grill flare ups. Last week we had a big bbq where I work. With our well respected chef at the grill, we all looked forward to a gourmet feast. We even had a choice between her homemade veggie burgers and cheeseburgers. But why was milk poured over the grill from time to time?
Using milk on the grill might be a great kitchen hack. But for someone with an allergy to milk, this is the kind of unregulated and unreported food allergen use that might not get conveyed from chef to kitchen to waitstaff to customer. My food allergy red flag went way up. A dairy allergic diner wanting a burger with no cheese is expecting exactly that. But this off the radar cooking technique adds milk to a cooking surface that is supposed to promise a dairy free burger to someone who wants one.
This is why I stress continually that communication is essential. When you or your FA child goes out to eat, think of this as a team effort. You are trusting your server with your life - ask questions. Have them ask questions in the back of the house if they don't know the answer. Ask if they use milk on the grill. If the kitchen staff doesn't know you have a dairy allergy they won't think twice about serving you that burger. But if you stress your daily allergy to your server, or make a note in your Open Table reservation, it will be more likely to be communicated fully to the kitchen and more likely that dousing the grill with milk will be flagged and a burger will be prepared at a separate station.
Speak up and don't be embarrassed to ask questions. Trust me, your server, chef and restaurant owner want you have have a safe and enjoyable experience at their restaurant!
With vegan diets on the rise due to medical conditions, health trends and availability of products at your local grocer, what does this mean for those with life threatening food allergies? Many vegan food products on the market contain tree nuts, particularly cashews. Can someone with a tree nut allergy even be a successful, thriving vegan?
Praline On Me
As my daughter popped a cheese and cracker sample into her mouth at the gourmet food store in our quaint seaside village, my emotions went from fear to panic to relief in less time than it takes to say praline mustard glaze. “WHAT are you doing?!?” I asked as she confidently approached the sample offerings and started to feast as if she does this on the regular. Turns out she does. College kids love free food samples, am I right? I ask her “how do you know these crackers are safe?” Eye roll. Mom I have these every time I’m come here.
I want to believe her but have never seen her just eat something without carefully checking ingredients. It’s not ok till I say it’s ok. I scan the cracker ingredients and sure enough they are fine. OK ... so crackers, whipped cream cheese and praline mustard glaze ... and that’s when fear turns to panic.
“WAIT does that say PRALINE? THERE ARE PECANS IN PRALINES!!!” I said, my heart started to beat faster. She looked at me with the stone cold glare of a teenager who knows unequivocally that she is right and mom is wrong. Then I guess I’m not allergic to pecans,. And then she shrugged and went to look at the sandwich specials.
Wait, what? In 2005 when my now college age daughter was in kindergarten and just diagnosed, her allergy screening indicated a slight allergy to pecans. So she has avoided them for 14 years (or so I thought!) This meant never having pecan pie at Thanksgiving dinner, for anyone. No cinnamon buns from the bakery. Conflict with grandma who always has pecan walnut ice cream in the freezer. And just like that, with no food challenges, no OIT treatment, no dr visits, she is now cleared to eat pecans. Wow. Grandma will be thrilled! I’m thrilled.
We all know this could have ended differently. A mistake like that could easily have led to anaphylaxis or an itchy throat and hives at minimum. It was a good opportunity to remind her to always always always read labels. Even if she’s had the food before. Especially if there is an unfamiliar word on the label. Prior to today she had no clue that pralines are synonymous with pecans. Now she knows.
I think about what could have hppened, but push it out of my brain with a new thought. One less ingredient to worry about, one less nut to avoid at holiday celebrations and to ask others to ban from their menus. One less food that is going to cause an allergic reaction.
I should be ecstatic but I’m still a little freaked out. Nothing like a little scare to keep us on our toes. But I will end with this - if you and your kids can tolerate pecans, this really was a delicious treat.
the peanut mom bully (PMB)
There are bullies, There are moms of bullies. And there are moms who are bullies. When it comes to dealing with our kids' food allergies around other families, some moms just stink. Let's call them peanut mom bullies or PMB for short. Dads can ben PDBs too but for some reason I've noticed it more with the moms.
Just this morning I read about some PMBs who handed out peanuts at a baseball game even when they knew three kids on the team are allergic. PMBs sometimes choose to ignore the announcement on the airline when there is a person with a life threatening tree nut allergy and may open a bag of almonds just because her kids want them. There are PMBs who call the school principal to complain about the no cupcake rule in class because of food allergies, and then send in treats anyway because how could her kid celebrate a birthday without chocolate in school? I have some PMBs in my family. I'm not sure these people are out to hurt anyone, in face it's the opposite. They just don't get it. They don't understand how serious - and sometimes fatal - food allergies are. They don't know what it feels like to be in our shoes. They lack empathy.
Empathy is the ability to feel or understand what someone is experiencing by trying to look at it from their perspective. PMBs are seeing things only from their perspective. They are typically feeling threatened that another parent is telling them how and where to feed their child. Or they perceive that their kid will be slighted to not get a food treat in their classroom on their birthday or some peanuts and crackerjacks at the big game. Never mind that there is a real physical threat if allergic kids are around these allergens or other kids eating them. If only they could understand the anxiety our kids face every day just trying to stay safe. If only they could feel the terror we feel when we have to call 911 and stick a needle full of epinephrine into our child's little leg. If only they could share the pit in our collective stomaches when a member of the food allergy community loses a child to anaphylaxis. If only they could get it.
Bullying of kids with food allergies on the rise. According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), About one in three children with food allergy reports being bullied as a result. It's a huge problem and there have been documented cases of anaphylaxis and even death, as a result of food allergy bullying. Recently, three teens threw cheese at a boy they knew had a serious dairy allergy. He went into anaphylaxis and died on the way to the hospital. Cheese.
How do we teach empathy to the PMBs? Change takes time. I truly believe that over time we can alter people's attitudes. It would be crazy to light up a cigarette around a baby. It would defy logic to bring a dog who bites to a playground of children. And remember when cars didn't have seat belts?
All these public health risks have been remediated by advertising campaigns, safety legislation and changing thoughts and behaviors over years and years. I hope it doesn't take too long, because I want PMBs to get it. I hope someday they will understand and relate and see the greater public health issue. I do think if we keep speaking up, presenting facts and advocating for our kids, PMBs will someday be a thing of the past. Until then, don't forget to bring 2 epipens with you and be aware of the signs of anaphylaxis because PMBs are unfortunately are not extinct yet.
How would you like school kitchen intel from an allergy mom? I thought so.
I assist in the preparation of breakfast and lunch for about 100 4th - 8th graders at a small private school on Boston’s north shore every day. It’s a scratch kitchen and I work with a Johnson & Wales chef and a kitchen manager and pastry chef. We make everything from scratch, including barbecue sauce, vinaigrettes, granola, veggie burgers and so forth.
I will start with the many virtues of our kitchen. First, it is very clean and organized. Our chef has a fantastic relationship with the Board of Health inspector who visits us several times a year. The food is a huge selling point for the school; it is known as the best school lunch in the area, hands down. We pride ourselves on healthy delicious homemade meals that fall within the government dietary guidelines.
Also, we take food allergies very seriously. We are nut free and peanut free. We offer a pbj sandwich but use sunbutter. There are many food allergies among the student body. We know who has them and what they can eat. They ask a lot of questions, clearly well trained by their parents! We will accommodate any special requests such as a cheese free taco or gluten free pasta. There are also other food and diet issues that many of our students struggle with such as celiac, diabetes, seizures, anorexia, depression, you name it. Overall, we do the best we can to protect every student.
That said, cross contamination is very real. I will start with the obvious - the salad bar. Over 100 kids and teachers cram their way along the double sided 14 unit salad bar. Which means tongs are being double dipped, chickpeas are flying into the carrots, cheese cubes are in the honeydew. Then, there is the reuse of the cutting knives and cutting boards in the kitchen. If we are making a dedicated meal for someone with allergies, we will use a separate knife and board. But for the general public, they get reused. Nuts are avoided but I still prepare egg, dairy, tuna, sesame, chickpeas, edamame and wheat at my station pretty much every day with sometimes just a wipe down of the knife and board. I use common sense but there is no requirement to sanitize our instruments between foods. So I wouldn't assume that any prep person out there is doing that, especially if I'm not.
I couldn't forget the sunbutter spreader and the hummus scoop. We have one of those superduper industrial washing machines that revs up to 150 degrees of water shooting out from every direction. It’s hard for an item to come out not clean and sanitized. But for some reason, that spreader and that scoop need to be rewashed every single time. They are seriously sticky.
With vigilance and good communication, a reliable food allergy management plan can be followed. Students with allergies should either talk to us about the safety of our hot lunch, or bring their own lunches. They should not eat from the salad bar or try something without identifying that they have an allergy. Same as in the real world, school cafeterias are a great place for allergic students to learn how to communicate about their allergies. So talk to your school nurses and food directors and let’s work together to keep everyone safe and healthy. If you find the staff is not adequately responsive, get a cute insulated lunch box and load it up with safe food. But give it a shot - the kids are very excited when they get to each what their friends are eating!