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!!

Summer mEMORYs

Summer mEMORYs

Summer residential camps can be intimidating for many food allergic teens and their parents.  They scared me until I recently participated in the Emory University Pre-College Program.  But now that I have successfully completed a two week residential course, I am confident that it is possible to navigate these situations.  Here’s how I did it!

Before even applying to the program, my parents contacted the program representative and talked to her at length about my peanut and tree nut allergies.  We were assured that I could be accomodated and we were happy to hear that the dining hall which provided the meal plan was peanut and tree nut free (and also shellfish free!).  We also learned that students would be allowed to eat off campus at Emory Village and we researched the restaurants there and found some viable options for me (Starbucks, Chipotle, Zoe’s Kitchen).   We found out that there was a refrigerator in the dorm which I would be free to keep my own food in.  Just in case however, I packed safe food such as granola bars, crackers and candy from home to take with me.  I also brought my chef card to use when dining off campus.  And of course I brought a back-up set of Auvi-Qs, a copy of my food allergy emergency action plan, and my health insurance card.

Upon arriving, I told the Residence Life staff, my RA, my roommate and my instructors about my food allergies.   Everyone was extremely kind and helpful when they found out about my allergies.  My RA immediately started to make signs asking people to please not eat peanuts in the hallway near my room.   The Residence Life staff helped me find out if boxed lunches and catered food were safe for me during off campus field trips and if not, helped me find alternatives.  My friends always made sure that I felt safe wherever we went, and did not eat at places where I could not.

The entire experience was successful because of good communication and advanced planning.   My food allergy didn’t run my life and my parents didn’t worry the whole time.  It’s great to know I can do it again next summer!   



Allergy Moms are the Best

Allergy Moms are the Best

Dear Mommy,

Thank you for always supporting me.  Without you, I would not feel nearly so confident going through life with food allergies.  You’ve packed so many safe lunches for me, ordered so many nut free chocolates, and had so many meetings with teachers to explain my allergies and to keep me safe at all times.  When I was younger, you made sure I had a treat of my own when the rest of my classmates were having a cupcake to celebrate someone’s birthday (and mine was always better).  My whole life, you have planned every meal meticulously so that I was never without something safe to eat, and you have taught me to plan ahead too.  You’ve inspired me to speak up for myself and to be confident.  Thank you for being my superhero, Mom!




Celebrate Safely

Whether it’s a dinner party, birthday party, graduation party, summer pool party, wedding reception, etc., it is extremely important to consider your food allergies and plan ahead.  Here are a few steps to follow to stay safe in social situations.

1) Find out from the host/hostess what kind of food will be served and notify them of your food allergies.  Ask if it is a catered event, and if it is, ask for the name of the catering company and call them to discuss your food allergies prior to the event.  If it is a potluck, then plan to bring a dish that you know you can eat, and try to keep it separate from foods people have brought that contain your allergen.

2)  No matter what kind of food will be served, eat a little food before the event so that if you cannot eat anything there you will not be hungry.  Also pack some snacks of your own, or even a whole meal to eat during the party.

3)  This one goes without saying, but you always need to bring your epinephrine.  I usually put mine in my purse (which has a button on the outside that says “Epinephrine inside!”).  Once you arrive at the party, you have two options.  You can carry your purse/bag with you epinephrine the whole time.  This is easy if you have a small cross body purse. You could also find a safe spot that is out of reach from a dog or small child and away from water if you are at the pool, but also easy for other people to find in case of an emergency.

4) Make sure that there are people at the event who know about your food allergies. Tell them where your epinephrine is and how to use it, and instruct them to call 911 immediately if you have a reaction.

The more you try to hide your allergy, the more awkward it will be.  Be honest and don’t let anyone make you feel unsafe or left out because of your allergies.  Explain why you aren’t eating the same food as everyone else- they will probably find it interesting more than anything else!

Bending the Rules and Bringing Your Own Food

Bending the Rules and Bringing Your Own Food

‘No outside food or drink’ signs become a mere suggestion when you have food allergies.  Fairly often, these signs are used to encourage people to purchase the food and drinks sold at that location (perhaps a movie theater, sporting event, you name it).  But how are those of us who have food allergies supposed to be confident that we can find something safe for us to eat at these places?

This happens all the time at movie theaters.  I’ll give the staff person my ticket, and then on the way to the theater, my friends will stop at the concession stand to buy their popcorn, candy, and soda.  And I will stand there awkwardly, and possibly buy a water.  Then there will be the inevitable “Don’t you want something more to eat?” and the response from another friend explaining that I can’t eat food because I’m allergic.  It then becomes tricky for my friends, because they feel bad eating in front of me during the movie when I don’t have any food of my own.  (I try to reassure them that I am used to it and that I don’t mind at all).  And so, in order to avoid this situation, I started bringing my own food.  This introduced a new dilemma: the “No Outside Food Or Drink” sign.  I cannot waltz into the movie theater with a giant tub of popcorn and a large soda.  Here, I have two options.  I can show the person taking tickets my epinephrine and explain my food allergies and politely ask if they would mind if I brought in my own snack.  (They will probably say yes.  It is probably safe to say that they will always say yes.)  Movie theaters can get pretty busy though, and the staff there may not want to deal with your dietary restrictions.  In this case, you can probably get away with bringing a large purse or a shopping bag with some snacks in it, and neglect to tell anyone.  (Shhh… you didn’t hear this from me.)  After all, they are mostly trying to make a profit.  If it is impossible for you to safely eat their food, it doesn’t matter if you bring your own snack as opposed to not eating anything.

While I used a movie theater to discuss this dilemma, it happens everywhere.  When the issue arises the best bet is to be honest and tell people about your allergies.  99% of the time, it is ten times easier to tell whomever it may concern about you allergies and asking if an exception to the No Outside Food Policy can be made for you due to extenuating circumstances.  So if you are madly studying for final exams and need a break, or are eagerly awaiting Pitch Perfect 2‘s arrival in theaters, don’t forget to pack a bag of candy as you head out.