Aw nuts: how the fear of food allergies hurts kids

Aaliyah (4) and Kameron (10) understand food allergies. They're smart -- but are they really smarter than other kids?

My grandson’s elementary school declared itself a “nut free zone”.  The cafeteria has special tables for kids with food allergies and friends whose lunches pass inspection by a volunteer monitor (an “allergy kid’s” mom). 

When we registered for the year, we got a list of items that I can’t pack for my allergy-free 10-year-old’s lunch, and a notice that this year the nurse’s office has a supply of epi pens for use in an emergency.  

It was the same at the circus and karate day camps he attended this summer, and at science camp last summer.  Because of other kid’s allergies, he was told that his favorite snack (trail mix) was “too dangerous.” Really?  Nuts are more dangerous than climbing 30′ into the air and throwing yourself  around? (Circus camp)  Building rockets and other explosive devices? (Science camp) Mixed martial arts sparring bouts? (Karate)  

Are the kids who are smart enough (and brave enough) for those activities really unable to comprehend that they have a serious food allergy by the time they’re old enough to participate in them?

At circus camp, I heard one mom say, “You can’t expect a child not to eat brownies with nuts if they’re available.”  Why not?  Millions of kids manage to maintain diabetic, kosher, halal, caffeine-free, gluten-free or vegan diets while kids all around them munch on things they can’t. 

Providing epi pens for the school nurse is a great idea. School nurses save lives, and giving them the tools and the authority they need to get the job done strikes me as long overdue common sense.  Trying to protect a few kids with allergies by controlling the behavior of several hundred kids without strikes me as a serious mistake.  

I’ve had food allergies my whole life and at least three of mine are life threatening. I also have two grandkids with food allergies and I speak from decades of experience when I say that trying to control other people’s behavior simply doesn’t work. 

When I was a kid, I learned that my severe food allergies were my responsibility to manage, and that only my behavior could keep me safe.  It was up to me to find out what was in food before I put it into my mouth, handled it, or sat next to someone eating it.  I also learned that a restricted diet didn’t have to restrict my life.

As a result, I have an unassailable sense of self-control, and a kind of self-confidence that has made me completely immune to peer pressure and self-pity.  It’s hard to describe, but it’s always there.  If I can travel the world eating foods from sidewalk food stalls and 5-star restaurants, while managing to convey and manage my food allergies whether I speak the language or not, I can do anything — and I usually do. 

My friends and family can enjoy their favorite foods, whether I’m allergic to them or not.  It’s a bit like the process of keeping kosher in a Jewish home or restaurant kitchen, with separate utensils and storage places for the things I’m allergic to, but it works.  (And, in the case of my husband, it requires very, very good dental hygiene — but that’s a sacrifice he seems willing to make, and I certainly don’t complain that after many years of marriage he’s still willing to brush, floss, and use the water pick so that he can eat what he wants and still kiss me when he wants.)

Is it really that hard to teach a six-year-old that they can’t eat anything mom didn’t pack for them?  To teach other kids that they can’t smear peanut butter around the table or on other kids?  My experience says no. 

What is hard is teaching kids not to make fun of and tease kids who are sitting at a special table at lunch, or resent someone who keeps THEM from enjoying what they want to eat.  And what about the budget-conscious single parents ordered not to pack inexpensive peanut butter & jelly sandwiches? 

Explaining the situation and enlisting the child’s friends to help would, I think, do a lot more to protect kids from their allergies — and from the skepticism and teasing they experience by being “set apart” — than anything else does.

It certainly works for me.  Aaliyah (age 4) is allergy free, but she can explain my allergies in detail and has a keen eye for potential dangers to “gamma Deb”.  I find that kids (and adults, from waiters to street vendors to restaurant managers and flight attendants) are happy to help me manage my food choices.

My list of food allergies is long, and ranges from the usual and somewhat simple (strawberries, pineapple, watermelon – usually easy to spot and avoid) to the life-threatening and often very hard to spot (tomatoes, shellfish, cilantro, sage, bay leaves, onions, potato skins, leeks, eggplant and over 20 others, mostly plants from the nightshade family).  You’d be surprised where some of these things crop up. 

From the time my grandkids were toddlers, they learned that they have to handle their own ketchup bottles and clean up after themselves if we order pizza, because I can’t.  My husband handles laundry, because kids clothes naturally atract ketchup, salsa, and fruit juice stains.

The grandkids with food allergies have their rapid-fire instructions to servers and fast-food counter help down (“please be careful it’s a food allergy, not a preference”, “if I don’t mention it, don’t put it near my plate — I have allergies”, “is that pre-made, or do you assemble it when I order?”). 

And they know that when they run into a server or counter clerk who has a language barrier, or doesn’t seem to “get it”, they should walk away or ask to speak to the manager rather than take a risk.  (Their friends think it’s cool when they ask to speak to a manager, or lead the way to another fast-food counter, by the way.)

Those without food allergies are quick to grab a second shopping cart or arrange themselves at the table so that the catsup or strawberries stay away from those with allergies.  And they’re quick to speak up for siblings or cousins if anyone dares to tease them, and to remind parents when it’s time to pack an extra allowable treat into a backpack “just in case” the treats at a school party aren’t safe.

I don’t actually remember explaining all of the ins and outs of managing food allergies to them — kids learn by example, and the example they followed was one of managing risk, not avoiding all risks.  How do I manage my food allergy risks?

  • I carry an epi pen, antihistamines, and a list of my allergies (in English and Spanish when I’m at home, and in multiple languages when I travel abroad), and my friends and family know how to help me in an emergency.  (I don’t care what John Travolta did to Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction — do not try to stab me in the heart with my epi pen.  They go under the skin, like a normal vaccination or insulin shot — preferably in my arm or thigh, thanks. Believe it or not, that’s my worst fear in life:  a well meaning movie buff trying to stab me in the heart and breaking my epi pen while I’m gasping for air.) 
  • I talk to waiters and restaurant managers and ask what’s safe for me to order — and if there is nothing on the menu I can eat safely, I leave quietly.  (I can’t eat at restaurants like Wolfgang Puck or Emeril’s, for example — they’re sympathetic, but simply can’t promise to serve foods I can eat safely because of the danger of cross-contamination in their kitchens.)
  • I carry healthy snacks with a long shelf-life, for the times when I can’t easily find something that I know will be safe to eat.  (I love New Zealand, and spend as much time there as possible, but Kiwis put tomatoes on everything, at every meal, and are the world experts at hiding them in places you’d never think to find them — they make tomato ice cream in New Zealand.  Really.  So I eat a lot of cheese and crackers and fish & chips when I’m there.)

We were at a Mexican restaurant a couple of weeks ago, and I was talking to my son while Aaliyah quietly colored on the kids menu. Suddenly she said sharply,  “Don’t put that there — she’s allergic.”  I turned to see a surprised water backing off with the bowl of chunky tomato salsa he had been about to put next to me, in a spot where my hand would almost certainly have brushed the dripping edge if he’d put it where he intended.  (Yes, I eat at Mexican and Italian restaurants — after consulting with the manager before I order, of course.)

So I know that MY grandkids are capable enough to manage food allergies by the time they start school. I met a five-year-old recently who was in charge of her own dietary needs, too.  We were in line at the Chik-Fil-A in the mall food court when a kindergarten-age girl stepped up to the counter to place her order, taking care to explain that she was allergic to gluten, and explaining how she wanted her grilled chicken, fruit, and drink. 

She told them what could and couldn’t be in her order (“grilled chicken sandwich, no bread because I have a gluten allergy, please put on clean gloves before handling my food”).  Her dad was standing next to her, listening carefully but not intervening.

We started talking about allergies, and he summed up my feelings perfectly.  “I won’t always be there to watch her.  She has to do it for herself, or she’ll wind up being a victim.  I don’t want my child to be afraid – I want her to be smart, and capable.”

I think that’s what the parents of the kids at the “allergy table” at Kameron’s school are missing.  I understand the fear.  Accidents happen, and kids are unpredictable.  We all want to protect our children.  But we can’t wrap them in cotton wool and protect them forever, whether they’ve had heart problems or food allergies.  They have to learn to stand on their own two feet, or manage life in a wheelchair, or deal with whatever medical issues they face.  The sooner the better, from my vantage point.

No one can take away my food allergies or my granddaughter’s heart condition.  They are life threatening and sometimes scary.  We manage them every day of our lives. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try a new restaurant, trek across Africa or explore northern Italy, munching on new foods as I go.  

I hope the kids eating lunch at the allergy table find that freedom someday.  I wonder, though.

If you grow up being told that you’re not capable of deciding for yourself what you can eat, what message will you wind up with?  And if you think that other people should modify their behavior to accommodate you, what kind of person do you become? 

Do children who grow up sitting at a special lunch table get teased more, or feel more isolated than I did?  Thank goodness, I never had to find out!

Note:  The title of this blog is “Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life”, and most of the time, I write about marketing and technology.  About once a month, I throw in a post that focuses more on my life than my job — I hope regular readers don’t mind!  — Deb
Photo credit:  Family snapshot, August, 2011, all rights reserved.  Do not reuse or repost this photograph.  Thanks. 

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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1 Response to Aw nuts: how the fear of food allergies hurts kids

  1. Pingback: Aw, Nuts: Are Overprotective Parents Hurting Kids with Food Allergies? |

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