No Nut Butter Drive

I have been a member of the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) Teen Advisory Group (TAG) for a few years, and this year I’ve had the privilege of being one of two Southeast regional TAG leaders.  Earlier this year, the FARE national programs director encouraged all regions to do a service project, so we in Southeast TAG decided to do food allergy friendly food drives in our cities and towns.  Here’s how the project I ran in my area went.
         Since I am allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, I decided to do a peanut butter alternative drive.  I set up some cardboard boxes advertising the drive and asked a variety of grocery stores to display them in the fronts of their stores.  Several larger grocery store chains that I approached declined to participate in my drive.  Other grocers such as Earth Fare and The Fresh Market declined to allow me to conduct the drive in their stores, but instead generously donated jars of nut free butters.  Local Charlotte NC grocer Healthy Home Market was willing to display my boxes in their three storefronts.  The boxes were left out for six weeks and they each accumulated donations from shoppers.  During the duration of the project, I worked with Parents of Allergic Kids (PAK), a local food allergy advocacy group, to publicize the food drive through PAK’s social media.  FARE also promoted my drive on the Charlotte FARE Walk for Food Allergy newsletter.  On walk day, October 22nd, I brought a collection box to the event and gathered even more donations.

         In all, I was able to collect 56 jars of nut free butters such as WOWBUTTER, SunButter, and I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter.  Initially I had intended to donate the jars to local food banks in my area to benefit needy food allergic individuals.  However, the drive concluded just as Hurricane Matthew was pummeling the Southeastern United States, including my home state of North Carolina.  Urgent requests for assistance to the eastern part of NC started pouring in.  One of the leaders of PAK suggested that we send the donations to the affected areas and I agreed that this was a great idea.  We sent the jars to a food bank that was able to separate and clearly mark the donations as appropriate for people with food allergies (see this post to help – there is still a need to help people affected by the storm!)
         I presented my food drive project on behalf of Southeast TAG at the 2016 FARE Teen Summit in Milwaukee, WI on November 13th.  Thank you to all who helped to make the project a success!


Food Drive for Hurricane Victims

Recently eastern North Carolina was hit by Hurricane Matthew and has since been experiencing extreme flooding and subsequently, food shortages.  This is making life especially difficult for food allergic people affected by the storm.  Please consider donating food allergy friendly products to these members of our food allergic community – click here to find out how you can get involved.  Thank you!

Going Nuts over Nut Free Bakeries

Going Nuts over Nut Free Bakeries

Bakeries pose challenges for food allergic people.  Even if the delicious looking chocolate cupcake in the case doesn’t have nuts in it, the pastry next to it might be covered in peanuts.  Since most bakery items are premade in areas where nuts are also handled, I have abstained from eating at bakeries since my diagnosis at age six.  It’s much easier to find prepackaged items that are nut free, but I never encountered a bakery where I could eat everything until recently.

A couple years ago I heard about a nut free bakery in New York City called Eleni’s.  My family stopped by while we were vacationing in the city, and never wanted to leave.  It was such a magical feeling to know that I could eat anything in the bakery without worrying about my allergies.  I ate several cupcakes at the bakery and bought some to go.  Eleni’s also sells cookies at their only location in NYC’s Chelsea Market and the cookies are carried by other stores around the US (I have found them at stores like TJ Maxx and Marshalls).  The crispy cookies come in many different types (my favorite being the chocolate chip ones), and I always have a box of them on hand.  I have been to NYC a couple more times since, and I am always sure to pick up a few cupcakes.

I thought that if NYC had a nut free bakery, Washington DC might have one too.  It does- Dog Tag Bakery is a nut free bakery located in Georgetown that benefits veterans by giving them work experience and guidance.  The bakery has a case full of delicious fresh pastries as well as cookies and brownies, and it sells bakery items online as well.  The interior of the bakery is cute as can be; it’s decorated with red, white and blue and houses its own dog tag engraver.

So, next time you’re traveling somewhere, look up allergy friendly bakeries.  You never know what you might find!


Necessary Medicine, Unnecessary Price Spike

Prices of Epi-Pens have more than quadrupled over the past few years.  The devices, which are one of only available treatments for food allergy reactions on the US market, are now costing hundreds of dollars.  As a result, I now have only one set of Epi-Pens, compared to the two or three sets that I used to distribute between my house, the school nurse, and my backpack.  For less privileged people, it can be difficult to even purchase one set with the price surge.  On top of that, the Epi-Pens have a shelf life of eighteen months, but Epi-Pens that are new to the shelves are elusive, so food allergic people have to purchase new ones closer to every twelve months… and bear the elevated Epi-Pen price annually.

The price raise has recently been getting tons of media attention, with even Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaking about the issue.  Public health experts and legislators alike worry about the accessibility of epinephrine for food allergic Americans.  Thousands of Americans are speaking out against the price surge too by signing this petition.  It is hugely important that food allergic people can afford epinephrine and that they should never be forced to use self made syringes, expired Epi-Pens, or even to go without epinephrine, so please take a moment to fill out the petition to protect food allergic people!


Five Stars for Food Allergy Camp

A few days ago I had a wonderful opportunity to volunteer at a local camp for kids with food allergies.  The camp was called Camp ROAR (Really Outstanding Allergy Retreat) and participating kids were divided into three different age groups called Lions, Tigers, and Bears.  Every morning for one week, the kids had discussions about food allergies, played sports, and did crafts.  Kids brought their Epi Pens and other medications as well as a snack free of their allergens, and before and after snack the kids were asked to wash their hands so as to keep other campers safe.

When the group who organized the camp, PAK (Parents of Allergic Kids), asked me to volunteer, I was thrilled (even though I was only able to make it to one day of the camp).  Throughout the morning I spent at the camp, I was so excited to see the kids being able to meet and talk to other kids with food allergies.  When I was younger, food allergy camps were uncommon, if not nonexistent.  In fact, I did not meet any kids with severe food allergies like mine until I went to FARE’s Teen Summit for the first time a few years ago.

It was nice to know that the campers would be able to experience summer camp without some of the usual dilemmas like having to have a different snack from everyone else or not being able to participate in an activity because it involves their allergens.  I loved seeing them have meaningful conversations about food allergies.  They were willing to share their stories at such a young age without being embarrassed or feeling different or weird.  Camp ROAR really is really outstanding!


Tour Groups and Food Allergies are Compatible!

Tour Groups and Food Allergies are Compatible!

Traveling with food allergies is so challenging in of itself that the prospect of traveling in a tour group seems insane.  It’s hard enough dodging unfamiliar cities with language barriers or cultural differences in an attempt to find a safe place to eat when traveling with a small group of family or friends, and the set itineraries and tighter schedules of tour groups only add extra obstacles.

That being said, traveling with food allergies and travelling with tour groups are not mutually exclusive.  I recently got back from a trip to New York City with my choir, where we sang in a choral festival at Carnegie Hall (still internally freaking out).  On this particular trip, there were almost thirty people including both of my parents.  I have been on other group tours with and without my parents, and from all of these travelling experiences, I have gathered the following helpful hints for staying safe in a group.

  1. Communication is crucial.  Tell chaperones, teachers, directors, travel agents, and anyone else involved in planning or executing the trip about your allergies far in advance, and remind them frequently so that they can have a better idea of what restaurants will be safe for you.
  2. Ask for the itinerary and call the restaurants that the group planning to eat at.  Often times restaurants only offer a couple dishes from the menu to tour groups, so ascertain which of those you can eat, and if none are safe, ask if they can prepare a different meal for you.
  3. Do not be afraid to separate from the group and eat somewhere else if need be.  On most of the group tours I have ever joined, I have had to opt out of at least one meal.  This is difficult for me as a minor because I am usually not permitted to leave by myself.  When my parents are on the trip, I have them take me somewhere else.  If they are not, I arrange for another chaperone accompany me.  (I only branch off when I know there will not be anything safe for me, not when I simply do not like whatever food is offered – especially because I am often not refunded for these meals).
  4. Plan ahead.  If you know that you will only have one hour to grab lunch, research nearby restaurants the night before or the morning of so that when that hour starts you don’t have to waste any time.  If you are staying in the same area for several days, eat at the same restaurant multiple times.  For example, in New York I found a Greek restaurant that served delicious food and handled my allergy with ease, so I ate lunch there two days in a row.
  5. Always pack snacks.  In case you cannot find any safe food, bring small snacks that you know you can eat and that can tide you over until there are more safe food options.  I like to keep a water bottle, banana, and granola bar with me.

Traveling in a group is possible, as long as you are open about your food allergy and can be flexible and organized.

Problem free Prom

Problem free Prom

This past weekend I had my junior prom, and in addition to planning my outfit, hair and makeup, I had to plan for meals.  The event included a sit down dinner which was provided by the venue where the dance was held.  So, about two weeks before prom I talked to the teacher at my school who was responsible for planning prom.  She knew about my allergies already, but it was good to remind her and ask her about prom in particular.  She relayed to me that every year she asks the dining service to serve a completely peanut and nut free prom since these allergies are so common.  However, she gave me the contact information for the food services representative with whom she had been in touch, and she called her to tell her that this year there would be a student with severe peanut/tree nut allergies.  I was told exactly what food would be there and that it would all be safe for me.  Going in to prom, I felt confident that I could eat all the food.  The food was served buffet style, and when I got my food I asked one of the servers about food allergies and she told me that she had been told that everything was peanut and nut free.  The food was delicious, and I did not have any kind of reaction.  Dessert was also safe for me, which was a fabulous treat because I’m not used to being able to eat any dessert (especially chocolate) that I want.

About a dozen of my friends had an after prom sleepover party at my friend’s house, so I had to think ahead about food for that too.  When we planned the party, I talked to my friend about what food she would have, and she made sure that she had things in her house that were safe for me.  I also brought some cookies and breakfast muffins that I knew were safe.

With a little advanced preparation and communication, I was able to have a normal and fun prom.  Planning ahead is completely worth the effort – nobody wants to end up in the E.R. on prom night!  🙂


Great Grandma vs. Mangoes

Food allergies have gained significantly more publicity in the past decade, it seems.  Food manufacturers have become more aware of food allergies in their labeling practices and since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which requires ingredient labels to mention any top allergens present in the food, was passed the United States in 2006.

Food allergies are nothing new, however.  Before all of the publicity, legislature, and support for food allergic individuals became readily available and accessible, these people had to get by somehow.

My great-grandmother was born in 1906 and she had a severe mango allergy.  Her allergy did not cause her too much trouble as she was growing up in Iowa.  However, when she moved to Central America and had a mango tree in her front yard, she had to be more cautious.  Being more vigilant was no easy task in a time when not many people had heard of food allergies, and those that did know about them did not understand them very well.

My great-grandmother knew that if she touched the outside peel of a mango, a rash would appear on her hand.  One time, my grandmother left her purse, which she had been carrying after eating a mango at school, astray, and my great-grandmother picked it up to move it.  After touching the purse, though, her hand had the same rash.

She understood that touching the outside of a mango always initiated a reaction.  She wondered, though, if she could eat the inside of the mango if it did not have the peel on it.  One day, while home alone, she carefully removed the peel and tasted the inside of the mango.  Shortly after, the maid came home and found her passed out on the floor and called an ambulance.  (She was eventually okay.)

The great-grandmother’s attempt to eat a mango seems absurd to food allergic people today, but in that time in made perfect sense since she did not fully understand her allergy.  I wonder now how many people throughout history whose deaths or illnesses were credited to imbalances of the bodily humors or tendencies to become weak or ill actually had food allergies.

The Great Wall of Pumpkins

The Great Wall of Pumpkins

When I was little, my mom read about a neighborhood in my city that builds a gigantic wall of illuminated jack-o-lanterns every Halloween.  My family and I went to check it out, and we were amazed by what we saw.  The wall made a huge impression on me.  When I grew too old to trick-or-treat, my family and I decided that we wanted to build a pumpkin wall of our own.

We bought some construction scaffolding, planks of wood, black spray paint, and outdoor Christmas lights and constructed the six foot tall structure in our front yard.  In the first year, our wall held roughly two dozen pumpkins carved and donated by my family and our neighbors on our street.  The next year, the wall held closer to thirty pumpkins.  This year, it displays sixty carved pumpkins.  We even hosted a carving party for friends and neighbors in which we provided pumpkins to be carved (we were able to buy them in bulk with a price break at a big box store).

From the beginning of the pumpkin wall project, we linked it with FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) so that we could raise awareness about food allergies and the difficulties faced by food allergic kids when trick-or-treating.  We asked people to donate a carved pumpkin and/or a small monetary donation.  As the wall grew, my food allergy story spread to more and more people.  The word circulated around my neighborhood and every time someone stopped to stare at the wall, I would tell them about food allergies, and how they had always been difficult to handle on Halloween.  Now our pumpkin wall has become a treasured neighborhood tradition that also supports a good cause!


Yay ADA!

Today is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The act helps eliminate discrimination  so that everyone can have a chance to lead an independent life without being excluded and is meant to give equal opportunities to everyone.  Why am I bringing this up here?  Because according to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), food allergies may be considered a disability under federal laws such as the ADA.  It covers those with physical or mental issues that affect one or more of the body’s systems.  Food allergies are included in the term ‘disability’ because they can affect the respiratory, digestive, or circulatory systems.   The ADA and other federal laws require public and private schools to accomodate children with food allergies so that they can receive an education while staying alive.  The ADA makes the lives of so many people, including mine, much easier!  So Yay ADA!!