“My son isn’t picky. People who don’t know about food allergy don’t understand the severity. This is life threatening. If he eats a certain food, it could threaten his life,” explains Teresa Torres Garcia, mother of a son who’s dealt with food allergy since he was diagnosed at 16 months.
I’ve watched my friends deal with food allergy with their children, and it’s a 24/7, lifelong ordeal. That’s because, according the Mayo Clinic, food allergy is:
an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
That’s why when kids with food allergy go to school, keeping them away from those triggers is such a challenge. So when Garcia’s son started school, she went with him on that first day and every year since then, she’s launched the school year by training his teachers and school staff. “Long before there were pamphlets about how to deal with food allergy, I was writing them and instructing my son’s teachers how to deal with his EpiPen,” which is an injection containing epinephrine, a chemical that narrows blood vessels and opens airways in the lungs. For parents of children with severe allergies, it’s crucial they or their children’s caregivers know what to do if their child has a severe allergic reaction.
One of the keys to success for children with food allergy is to eat only what they bring from home, and it’s not an easy task to maintain. I think of how often my boys were offered food from their friends and didn’t have to think twice about whether that would be life threatening.
Two weeks into Kindergarten, “our son came home and took two hard candies out of his pocket,” says Garcia. “He told us someone offered them to him and asked, ‘can I eat these?’ We told him he couldn’t but said he could save them and give them to a friend. That’s when we realized, he understands. He could remember a really severe reaction he’d had to eating food that we hadn’t given him when he was four and a half, and he didn’t forget.”
The non-profit foundation FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), “works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies.” Of that number, 1 in 13 children now suffer from food allergy. To make matters worse, one third of those kids report being bullied at school because of their allergy. FARE has launched the “It’s Not a Joke” campaign to “help raise awareness about the serious, potentially life-threatening nature of food allergies, and the dangers of food allergy bullying.” They’ve released a PSA featuring teen actor and former Shake It Up star Kenton Duty, who has publicly shared his own story of living with food allergies.
13 year old Charlotte Jude-Schwartz , who has severe food allergies, is the author of the ‘story of the month’ for Allergic Living Magazine. Charlotte writes how she was eating lunch outside with friends at school and walked away from her backpack. When she returned she found her lunchbox outside the backpack, but thought nothing of it until she returned home and handed her lunchbox over to her mom. “She looked spooked, and together we saw that there was a crumbled up cookie with chunks of chocolate spread all inside my lunchbox. I was astonished, scared – and baffled.” Charlotte and her mother went to the school principal, and the school put up posters about food allergy bullying with a strong message: “Food allergies can be life-threatening, so putting allergens near someone allergic on purpose is a crime, and punishable.” The school intervened and questioned a number of students and Charlotte says, “we did come to a very quiet and satisfying conclusion with the student responsible, who agreed that it had been a mistake and a terrible prank that could have had dire consequences.”
Garcia says her heart goes out to kids who’ve been bullied for their food allergy, but her son was fortunate, “we just never had an issue. But when I hear about this it’s so clear there’s a need to educate from the classroom.”
Her son, now 17, recently wrote an essay where he talked openly about living with food allergies. His takeaway? His journey has made him stronger and more understanding. And Garcia says that’s been her goal all along, “stay positive. It’s why I’ve been so pro-active at his school. If we can present this to educators with a positive attitude instead of as a bother, they understand how important and critical this is for kids.”
Garcia has three suggestions for parents of children with food allergies:
- Educate yourself and don’t be afraid.
- Involve your child in the process. Make sure they learn how to manage themselves and spread the word through your family.
- Educate your school. Stay positive and don’t lose your temper, so you have teachers and school officials as advocates.
Garcia’s son is waiting to hear from a number of colleges, and she says it’s definitely been a challenge. For him to attend a college from a distance, the dorms would have to have a kitchenette, since he couldn’t eat from a cafeteria. She’s even putting a cookbook together for him, so he can cook his own meals. Her family is living through what many more will face in the years to come, and as she puts it, “we’ve had a good journey.”
Lois’ Living Through It blogs are posted on Mondays and Thursdays. Join her Monday mornings around 8:45am on Good Day Colorado.