For our youngest son’s birthday, we took him and a few of his friends to the opening weekend of the movie, “Peter Rabbit.” Full of slapstick humor, sarcasm, and talking animals, it is the perfect formula for a family movie. The perfect formula except for one little problem…and for those with food allergies, the problem isn’t so little.
In Peter’s quest to overtake the garden, he and his siblings set traps, snares, and even the electric fence against Mr. McGregor resulting in hilarity and peals of laughter from the young audience. Upon learning that Mr. McGregor has a severe allergy to blackberries, the rabbits devise a plan to use his allergy to their advantage. The rabbits open fire on Mr. McGregor and after pelting him with tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables, the rabbits successfully land a blackberry directly into his mouth. Immediately upon swallowing the blackberry, Mr. McGregor goes into anaphylactic shock. Thankfully, he is carrying his EpiPen in his pocket and is able to retrieve and administer it before passing out. Mr. McGregor quickly recovers and continues his quest to rid his garden of the pesky rabbits. For a movie full of physical comedy reminiscent of Looney Tunes and The Three Stooges, Peter’s plot to use Mr. McGregor’s food allergy against him is disturbing. While anvils dropping from the sky could certainly kill a man, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. However, experiencing an anaphylactic reaction due to ingesting a food allergen happens at the rate 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths per year (https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm079311.htm) .
Sadly, this movie scene is an example of art imitating real life. In Pennsylvania, 3 teenage girls are facing criminal charges for intentionally exposing a classmate to her allergen. A 14-year-old girl rubbed pineapple on her hand and then proceeded to give another classmate, with a well-known pineapple allergy, a high five resulting in a hospital visit for the young lady with the food allergy. This was no mistake or run-of-the-mill school prank. Pineapple was not being served at school that day. The allergen was brought to school with the sole purpose of poisoning a classmate.
In a society with seemingly little knowledge, nor compassion for those who have food allergies, what’s a family to do? Wrap their child in bubble wrap and keep him at home all day, every day? As tempting as that may sound, it’s simply not realistic. Our children must learn to navigate a world filled with hazards. For our children with food allergies, the earlier they learn to navigate those hazards, the better. Here are a couple of simple things that we’ve done to help our son:
- Help your child distinguish what his/her physical symptoms feel like due to ingestion or contact with their allergen and how to verbally express those symptoms. Next, communicate those symptoms and key phrases to relatives and caregivers. For example, our son will experience a tingling of his mouth, chin, and/or throat if he ingests dairy. I’ve informed his teachers and caregivers that if they hear the phrase, “my chin is tingling,” they need to stop what they are doing, examine his physical state, and be ready to act.
- Teach your child how to use his EpiPen, but don’t stop there! Teach siblings, babysitters, teachers, grandparents, neighbors, and anyone who’s interested how to use it as well. Sure, the directions are printed on the EpiPen, but who wants to rely on reading that small print in a stressful situation?! A few minutes of instruction might help save someone’s life.
- Learn to read food packaging labels. Don’t depend on the “gluten free” or “dairy free” claim on the front of the box to keep your child safe. Read the ingredient list to make sure that no form of your child’s allergen is present. Under the ingredient list is where you can also find the “may contain” and “processed in the same facility as” labels. While a product may not contain any dairy, it could be processed on the same line as other products containing dairy and thus, a big no-no for our son who has a severe dairy allergy.
- Ask, ask, and ask some more. Ask the clerk at Moe’s to change his gloves before preparing your burrito, or for fresh ingredients from the back that haven’t been handled by gloves with potential allergens on them all day. Ask your child’s teacher to have the class wash their hands after lunch, or that desks be wiped down after a class snack containing your child’s allergen. Ask the school nurse or guidance counselor if your child qualifies for a 504 Plan. Ask the parents on your child’s sports team to refrain from bringing snacks that contain your child’s allergen so that everyone can play safely. Is it awkward to ask? Yes. It’s awkward when you hold up a service line at a restaurant. It’s awkward when a parent rolls his/her eyes, or complains about having to pack a different snack other than his child’s favorite for game days. However, it keeps your child safe, so get over the awkward and ask.
- Give your child responsibility over his/her food allergy. When our son was first diagnosed with his food allergy, he was 4 years old, so we started small. We taught him not to accept food from anyone but us and we also taught him a simple answer for when he was offered food, “I can’t eat that. It might make me sick.” More recently, we have worked on reading food labels and letting him carry his own EpiPen while at soccer practices and games. Since he is 9 years old (almost), we are going to start teaching him how to order his own food when we go out to eat. Small tasks of responsibility given over time have really added up. Our son has come a long way from, “I can’t eat that.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day, y’all. Consistent guidance, practice, and yes, even some nagging, will hopefully produce happy, healthy, and responsible young adults who thrive in spite of their food allergies.