According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), there are approximately 15 million Americans with food allergies. Every 3 minutes someone is sent to the emergency department due to a food allergy reaction. A huge number of these emergency room visits are for children. In fact, 1 in every 13 kids in the United States has a food allergy. That means those kids are at your child’s preschools, schools, and synagogues. One of them lives at my house. His name is Max and he is severely allergic to dairy, eggs, and all nuts. Max is 10 months old.
In order to protect Max, our house is now dairy, egg and nut free. For the most part, my older children have handled this extremely well. A couple days ago I did come across Isaiah (age 5) eating a bagel from Moe’s in the garage with his Daddy, because “a bagel without cream cheese is not worth eating.” And occasionally, William (age 2) wants a cheese stick so much that he tries to convince me that cheese sticks are “not dairy.”
“Mommy,” he said the other day at the grocery store, “these cheese sticks do not have dairy, because they are not white.”
“No Will,” I replied, “they are made of milk. All cheese sticks have dairy.”
“No! No!” he said. “There is no dairy in this one!! I need a cheese stick.”
Poor kid. It is only going to get worse. The celebration of Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas (which we spend with my parents) generates pounds and pounds of label-free desserts and homemade treats. This is the first year I have noticed just how many people push these treats during the holidays. It is not just our grandparents making those delicious cookies – they are already everywhere.
I have noticed that giving people more information, rather than less, can help protect Max. True allergies are not food sensitivities and they are not choices. With all the people adhering to special diets (gluten-free, paleo, etc.), I have noticed that if I simply tell someone what foods our family is avoiding, they assume our avoidance is optional. And if I only say that Max is allergic, more than half the time the person replies, “Really? How do you know?” Even well-meaning people sometimes don’t appreciate how serious Max’s allergies are, unless they know more of the story.
So instead of a brief explanation, I provide the details. I explain that Max has a life-threatening allergy to dairy, eggs, and nuts. I say that our allergist prescribed an epi-pen and I discuss how if I eat even a little of his allergic foods, he ends up with a rash because the proteins pass through breast milk. Sometimes I describe the skin-testing he underwent and talk about how touching his back with eggs, milk, and nuts resulted in quarter-sized welts on his back where each of these foods made contact. It may seem like too much information, but it works. People take note.
Next, even when I give the long version about Max’s allergies, I always verify ingredients myself. In the past month, two different Boulder restaurants told me that the chocolate chip cookies they were selling were “vegan.” I asked what kind of chocolate chips they used and if I could see the label. Answer: milk chocolate. Chocolate made with cow’s milk. Sigh. Think twice before accepting that holiday cookie.
Although our family is not strictly kosher, our entry into the world of food allergies has given me a new perspective on keeping kosher. Mixing meat and dairy may not send someone to the hospital, but avoiding this combination is extremely important to many of my Jewish friends. We all need to know that “vegan” chocolate chip cookies are actually vegan – not “vegan except for the chocolate chips.”
I suspect I’m late to the party here, discovering what strictly kosher people have always known. It’s sometimes hard to be different, but it raises our consciousness. Max doesn’t have a choice in avoiding these foods, but if my whole family can be mindful and disciplined about what we eat, we can be disciplined in other areas of our life too.
If you or a loved one has an allergic child, what strategies do you employ to keep him safe and to keep your other non-allergic children happy? I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or at KatieSchwalb@gmail.com.
Katie is a native of rural Kansas. She writes about agriculture, education, children, Jewish interfaith families, the arts, and law. She is on an extended sabbatical from her practice as an intellectual property attorney and lives with her husband and three young boys in Boulder, Colorado.