Readers Respond: What Are Our Societal Obligations to Food-Allergic Kids?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 26, 2013

PeanutsI was a little scared to post yesterday’s piece about novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s request that parents of non-allergic kids take certain precautions to protect kids with food allergies at the playground.  The degree to which society needs to collectively accommodate such kids can be a hot button issue, and I had no idea what to expect in terms of reader reaction.

But in the end I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer niceness of TLT readers, both here on the blog and on TLT’s Facebook page.  Here are two typical comments that came in from parents not affected by food allergies in their own families:

We generally avoid taking peanut butter to the park. If we do you can bet we wipe up good when we’re done. I don’t get why this is so hard. I do not want to be the cause of another child’s suffering, regardless of whether the general public thinks I am responsible or not. It’s just a decent thing to be aware of. It takes a village people!

And . . .

No snacks on the playground. Water only. When it is time for snack, we exit the play area, find a nice shady spot in the grass and have our snack away from everyone else. When providing snacks for a group, I steer clear of nuts, berries, kiwi and soy. Or I just ask the parents ahead of time if there are any allergies or food avoidance in the group. I know I would appreciate the thought if one of my children had food allergies.

And many parents felt that Sittenfeld’s requests would serve all kids well, regardless of allergies.  Here’s a comment along those lines from Alissa Stoltz of Simply Wholesome Kitchen:

. . .  there are so many benefits to ALL kids to not allow them to run around eating and dropping food all over the place, that the fact that it will also help protect kids with potentially life-threatening allergies makes it a no-brainer.

Dana Woldow of PEACHSF had a similar view:

Letting kids run around while eating is a bad idea on many counts, including increasing the likelihood of choking. Also, part of learning healthy eating habits is to value eating as an activity worthy of one’s full attention, not something to do while also doing something else (like watching TV); distracted eating not only can lead to less enjoyment of the food itself, it also makes it harder for the child to realize when he or she has had enough.

I wasn’t the only one pleased to see such widespread acceptance of Sittenfeld’s proposal.  Here’s an email I received yesterday from my sister-in-law, Lisa Siegel, whose daughter has a severe nut allergy and was one of the first kids to undergo the type of desensitization program discussed on the blog here.  Lisa has been a committed advocate for food-allergic families and had this to say:

I had to share that I am surprised and encouraged by the supportive comments made on yesterday’s TLT allergy post.  I was recently a part of a national conference call hosted by FARE to gather testimonials on how the stress of having a food allergic kid affects the entire family.  One recurrent theme shared by parents was the frustration of reading new stories/blog posts written by those unaffected…and reader comments filled with judgement and insensitivity.  No one can truly understand what we go through until they are faced with their own adversities.  But the posts on your blog may show that the tide is slowly turning.  Thanks for putting the dialog out there!

But not everyone felt that Sittenfeld’s requests were realistic or desirable.  Reader Kate had this to say:

While the article doesn’t quite say it, it sort of assumes every park going kid has mom and dad hovering nearby with a wipe. I’m not trying to be disrespectful here, but is that really the sort of culture we want to create? Many kids are of an age to play in a park by themselves. Some I know might even cut through the park on their way to or from school, and take a quick ride on the swing. Sure we can teach these kids to be respectful of their environment, but it wouldn’t be realistic to think they were 100% free of contaminants at all times, or would be carrying a packet of wipes.

And finally, I wanted to share this interesting perspective from Justin Gagnon, CEO of ChoiceLunch (a school food provider in California) and also a parent and sometime TLT contributor:

. . . I have to say I’m disheartened by an environment where nuts are villainized and banned in so many schools, but highly processed foods that have “clean” allergen statements are not perceived to pose a threat. One is actually a great source of protein and energy for kids, but is life threatening to a small minority with dramatic and immediate consequences. The other is seemingly innocuous, but has dramatic and long-term negative consequences that many refuse to even recognize.

My 2-year old son and I were thrown out of my daughter’s preschool class Halloween party because I gave him a bag of trail mix that had nuts. We were ushered away immediately and almost incredulously at our brazen ignorance. The classroom, unbeknownst to me, was nut free. At the same time, the class was enjoying store bought, artificially colored cupcakes, go-gurts, goldfish and fruit juice – all parent provided in strict accordance with the nut-free snack policy of the school. 

There has to be a middle ground here. Schools implement drastic elimination food policies because they don’t know how to deal with severe allergies. Many times these policies restrict far more nutrient dense and wholesome foods than are otherwise allowed…all in the name of safety.

I think Justin’s point could be the topic of a separate post: does vigilance about food allergies result in kids eating more processed food?

Thanks to all who wrote in and engaged in this important discussion.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

sahnya April 26, 2013 at 9:55 am

When the focus is just on nut allergies I think the door is opened to serving more processed foods. If we focus on common allergens beyond nuts, then the food served would have to be more wholesome with single or limited ingredients. I would love to see the push be towards group snacks being things that have clear and limited ingredients to that parents (and kids) can better know if they are something to be avoided.

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Christin April 26, 2013 at 11:36 am

As a mother to a son with a severe peanut allergy (including airborne), I really appreciate the sensitivity of other parents displayed in these comments.

As a parent who didn’t have to deal with this with our first child (or any of the younger 3), I understand that it’s hard for parents who don’t deal with this to understand. It took our church almost 18 months to comply with the needs of my son by not serving peanut related snacks in class.

I really don’t mean to be a pain to people about my son’s allergy, but the fact remains, it is life threatening for him. I don’t know why. When we passed by an open display of peanuts in a grocery store one day, he ended up in a wheezing fit — an all out asthma attack. He can’t even BREATHE in fresh peanuts (in the shell).

As a mother, it has been MY responsibility to teach my son (now 7) what he absolutely CANNOT eat. And I trained all of his siblings in the same so they can help check the food when I am not there to. It has been awesome to watch my children help and support their brother (and protect him, knowing the dangers involved).

Even my other children do not eat peanuts (even if they don’t have an allergy) just to be on the safe side. Parents with children who have allergies didn’t ask for this, nor did their children. It’s just the way of things and any support we receive from our community is greatly appreciated and HELPFUL in protecting these children. So thank you!

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RedinNC April 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

I think allergen bans do lead to kids eating more processed foods. My son’s daycare had a “store-bought only” policy. I still recall somewhat irritatedly 5 years later how that resulted in my beautiful organic whole-wheat zucchini bread that I had made and sent in for his 2nd birthday, his FAVORITE, being fed to the teachers because the kids could only get store-bought junk (read: cupcakes with an inch of neon frosting) with an ingredient label. Oh, I understand the reasons for the ban. Who says I hadn’t mixed the zucchini bread in a bowl that had once held peanut butter? And I certainly don’t begrudge the teachers my baked goods. God knows they deserve that and more. But why are there no policies on (moderately) healthy treats?

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Kate April 26, 2013 at 11:52 am

My kids are old enough to visit the park with friends, without an adult present. If I had younger children, I would definitely be mindful of what Sittenfeld talked about it her article. I’d hope that my children are generally courteous at the park, but I can’t discount the possibility that one of them could have a snack at a friend’s house and go to the park without properly washing their hands.

My comments on your other post were in part motivated by some of the people I see at our local parks. If they take a kid with a runny nose to the park, use foul language and don’t clean up after their dog after he poops in the park, I don’t see it as realistic that these people will be conscientious about being courteous in the park. I think that is a different cross-section of people than the ones who might read your blog.

It would be interesting to hear more comments for Sittenfeld. It sounds like she advocates for changing how everyone uses these public spaces.

I thought Justin’s comments about allergies were interesting. I agree that schools don’t know how to deal with severe allergies, in part because they aren’t always getting accurate information from parents about the allergies. I think before individual schools make knee jerk policies, they should be collecting more data about the true nature of the allergies.

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Andi April 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I think that having snack time during school results in kids eating more processed food.

Maybe you’ve written on this before and I missed it, but when did schools start having snack time in addition to lunch? When I was a kid (in the ’80s) we packed or bought a lunch and that was it. And we were fine. And that was with an hour-long bus ride on both ends of the school day.

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Bri April 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Andi, when I was a kid in the 1980s, we had snack time. It wasn’t elaborate, but we did get 10 minutes in the mid-morning to eat some cheese and crackers or a yogurt at our desks. And I have to say, now that my eldest is in Kindergarten, I like the morning snack. He wakes up early and is hungry, so he eats breakfast at about 6:30 each morning. Even if it’s a good breakfast, which it generally is, he wouldn’t be able to make it until 11:30 (lunchtime for his class) without a little something in between. Snacktime for young children is not a problem. It’s the nature of the snack that may be.

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Andi May 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

I’m not saying that snack time is necessarily a bad thing, though to me it is new and unusual. I send a piece of fruit in for my daughter’s snack. But most parents do seem to opt for processed snacks- like crackers and yogurt- and therefore snacks during class means increased consumption of processed foods.

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greenstrivings April 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm

The kindergarten teacher (public school) announced at the beginning of the year that due to allergies the only treat she wanted parents to bring was … fruit snacks. Infuriating on so many levels, not least of which was that there are, of course, lots of other fresh, healthy, tasty foods that don’t commonly trigger allergies. Candy as a reward was and is a frequent problem throughout the school as well.

On the other hand, I think that without the allergies reasoning there still would have been plenty of processed food coming into that classroom.

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Nutri-Link Technologies April 29, 2013 at 10:30 am

I recently read on Friday that EpiPen’s are slowly becoming mandatory in schools by law in a handful of states. Not that should any reason at all for nuts to be allowed or served to those who have nut allergies, I think awareness is a very, very good thing. A parent of a child that doesn’t have nut allergies does not share the same viewpoint of a parent of a child who does. But totally agree with the above comments, there has got to be additional healthier alternatives that are nut-free to serve in class.

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Amy April 29, 2013 at 8:59 pm

This is a tough one for me because what happens when the kids become adults and go to the movies, or the mall, or work and someone there has eaten peanuts… it is unrealistic to control the consumption of peanuts to the general public, especially when when it is a very good protein source for the majority of people.

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lindtfree May 8, 2013 at 7:12 pm

At risk of stating the obvious, I think a lot of this should depend on the ages of the children in question.

It isn’t realistic to expect preschoolers to exercise good judgement about their own food intake, nor children in the early elementary grades. By third or fourth grade, children (both those with food allergies and those without) need to start learning responsibility.

When I was a young, I knew a slightly older child who became a Type I diabetic, diagnosed at age eight or nine. Away from home, he monitored his diet, tested his glucose, and administered his insulin injections. For Type I diabetics, such responsible behavior is the norm. If older diabetic children can manage their own ongoing maintenance care every day, surely older moderately food-allergic children can learn to avoid allergens.

Although I regret suggesting it, perhaps children who are so severely food-allergic that merely being in the same room as an allergen without ingestion should be privately tutored in a safe environment. Speaking from experience as one of the “hidden disabled,” life isn’t fair. When severely food-allergic children grow up and enter the workforce, reasonable accommodations may be made, but no employer is going to perform contortions to guarantee a severely allergic employee’s safety. There comes a time when we are all expected be adults and learn to deal with our limitations ourselves.

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