What Is Our Collective Obligation to Protect Food Allergic Children?

PeanutsLast night I read a thought-provoking piece in Slate by novelist Curtis Sittenfeld in which she asks parents to take precautions at the playground to protect her food-allergic daughter and others like her.  After explaining how chance encounters with various foods on the playground could potentially cause her child to suffer fatal anaphylaxis, Sittenfeld makes these requests:

If your child snacks at the playground, please don’t let her run around while she’s eating. Please don’t leave the food unattended and accessible to other kids. If your child spills, help her clean it up. And after she’s finished, please use wipes to wash her hands, not antibacterial gel; hand sanitizer doesn’t kill the proteins in most foods that cause allergic reactions, and tiny amounts of such proteins can literally be lethal.

The comments on Sittenfeld’s piece, predictably, have gotten a little nasty.  A typical entry:

Honey, they are YOUR kids. Don’t be looking to the rest of us to do your job for you. You made your bed, now lie in it.


Before I read last month’s New York Times Magazine cover story on childhood food allergies and a possible cure (discussed in this TLT post), I might have dismissed Sittenfeld’s views out of hand.  But having read about the unrelenting anxiety and other burdens shouldered by parents of food allergic children, and the unpredictability of a child’s allergic responses (hives one day, anaphylaxis the next), I honestly don’t know how some of these families hold it together at all.

Even before reading the Times story, my concerns about food allergic kids led, in part, to my writing my Food-in-the-Classroom Manifesto (in which I argue that school classrooms should be food-free), and I certainly support accommodations for food allergies in school cafeterias.  But schools are unique in that parents can’t supervise their children there, and they must trust third parties to take reasonable precautions.  When we move outside the school context, though, what’s our societal obligation to protect food allergic kids?

Do you think Sittenfeld’s requests are reasonable or overreaching?

Whether or not you have food allergies in your family, I’d love to hear what you think.  And be sure to check out this 2010 guest post on The Lunch Tray from the Wellness Bitch, a parent of a food-allergic child who asks essentially the same question.

[hat tip: Jolly Tomato, for sharing the Sittenfeld piece on Facebook]

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  1. says

    “You made your bed, now lie in it?”
    I wonder what that is supposed to mean?
    “You intentionally gave birth to a child with life threatening allergies?”

    My kids are long grown, so I am no longer a regular visitor to the playground, but just based on what you have presented here, these requests don’t seem unreasonable, and in fact serve to protect the non allergic children too.

    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.

    Protecting one’s food when out of doors is just common sense. Where I live, if you leave your snack unattended, the seagulls will swoop down and seize it within 5 seconds, and if they don’t get it, the crows or pigeons will.

    Cleaning up spilled food is just common courtesy. The sooner kids learn to take responsibility and clean up after themselves, the better (even when outside – when did it become okay to litter a public playground with spilled Goldfish crackers?)

    As for cleaning kids’ hands with wipes instead of antibacterial gel, overuse of antibacterial gel has been linked to the rise of “superbugs” resistant to nearly every form of antibiotic. Using wipes instead just makes sense.

    I admit I have read only your column, not the original post by this allergic child’s parent, but she doesn’t seem to be demanding that other parents refrain from letting their own kids eat in public at all, or demanding that there be laws passed to prevent other parents and kids from inadvertently triggering an allergic reaction in her child. She is asking for common courtesy, and a few simple actions which, IMHO, parents should be taking anyway.

    • says

      I absolutely love this response. It completely reframes the question as, “What is our societal obligation to be decent, responsible, and respectful human beings in general?” Well-done, I have nothing to add.

  2. says

    Great post and Great Question…. my thoughts are more along the lines of yours… FOOD FREE ZONES!
    For our daughter (suspected of a mitochondrial disorder/metabolic disorder) we have to avoid more foods than just peanuts…
    her diet is very limited and ingesting even tiny amounts of carrots can make her ill… but I am not going around asking other parents to have a carrot free, milk free, gluten free, soy free, salicylate free, oxalate free playground for her. I do take full responsibility for keeping her safe, but a “food free zone” would make that easier for ALL of us who deal with food allergies/intolerances/metabolic disorders… because NO MATTER what food you pick to avoid and eliminate on the playground/school/etc. the ones you choose to allow will make SOME CHILD potentially ill. This is the sad state of health of the majority of this generation of children :(

  3. Andi says

    This morning I attended my daughter’s kindergarten concert and sat with my son on my lap. I was watching the stage, so I didn’t notice until I stood to leave that the toddler next to us had been eating apple slices. And there were now partially chewed apple slices all over the bench, floor, and my skirt. And the mom walked off and left it.

    Why do we think that toddlers and children need to have food on hand all of the time? Frankly, it’s bad manners (and unhealthy) to walk around eating all day. And if your kid drops food, pick it up. Not because it’s your obligation to keep other kids safe, but because dropping garbage and food on the ground is disgusting.

    So, in short, have some respect for yourself and others. Eat sitting at a table and pick up after yourself.

  4. says

    I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been on the fence on this one. Part of me wants to say, “If your kid has a medical issue, it’s up to you and your kid to learn to manage that medical issue when you’re out and about in the larger world. We shouldn’t all have to live by your personal needs.” The parent-of-a-toddler side of me sees, however, that such an approach is extremely difficult until the child is old enough to understand such matters and it’s even more difficult when the child is outside of your care, like at school.

    All that said, I think the response from that commenter was downright nasty, inconsiderate, and selfish and exemplifies our growing negative attitude in this country. This person and her child did not “make their bed.” They were dealt a hand they didn’t ASK for. This is not a case of preference like a food diet (veganism, etc.). We all could be a little more considerate and compassionate towards those with food-related medical conditions in much the same way we need to be compassionate towards those with accessibility issues (wheel chair bound, blind, deaf, etc.). I believe the ADA terms it, “reasonable accomodations.”

    I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request that you not have your kid eating while playing on park equipment. It keeps the equipment cleaner and teaches your kids proper table manners. Food shouldn’t be left unattended to keep it away bacteria, insects, and critters as well as other children. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that people properly dispose of trash and then wash their filthy peanutbutter (and germ)-smudged hands when done eating. I don’t want my kid catchng the norovirus any more than someone wants their kid going into anaphalactic shock. The effect may not be as deadly, but the problem and solution are the same.

  5. says

    I am that allergic kid. Only now it’s decades later and I’m the allergic mom. I have been the person who’s afternoon turns out crappy because of an accidental nut run-in. Is it our societal obligation to protect allergic kids in public spaces? No. (Certainly the airlines don’t think so). But shouldn’t we want to live in a society that at least considers it?
    I have a child who loves peanut butter (I’m allergic to tree nuts, not peanuts) but we don’t keep peanut butter in the house because I have not exposed my two younger children to it yet. She has learned to find other things to eat happily and eats peanut butter out of the house occasionally. Aside from that, her best friend is allergic to peanuts. Even though her school is NOT nut free, we wont send nuts to school out of courtesy to her friend. Is that necessary? No. But when I was growing up in a world not nearly as sensitive to allergies as we live in now, those courtesies made a huge difference. Its a lesson I am happy to teach my children.
    Allergies can be horribly isolating. And it is all too easy for the allergic child to absorb the fears of their caregivers. How can caregivers possibly rest easy with these life threatening matters? Frankly I don’t know how my parents managed to stay sane, let alone married happily as we all navigated these allergy waters and all of the ups and downs that went along with it.

    I don’t think all parents should have to comply at the playground. The ultimate responsibility lies with the caregivers of the allergic person (and the goal of course, is to empower the allergic child to care for him or herself). But there is absolutely no harm in asking.

  6. Laura says

    I find this really fascinating because of the airline question. I agree that this was an INCREDIBLY insensitive response – but I also don’t think that it’s the responsibility of others to create an allergen-free environment, whether that’s on the playground or on a plane. (Though of course people ought to clean up messes.)

    What I find interesting is that peanuts seem to be the main area where people think it’s okay. People who are allergic to cigarette smoke can’t request no smokers on their flight, but those allergic to peanuts can get the airlines to tell everyone no peanuts allowed. The airline does a terrible job cleaning the plane in between flights, so I don’t see how this helps anyway.

  7. C says

    The best way I can sum up what it is like to be an allergy mom is to say to read this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carissa-k/what-its-like-to-be-an-al_b_3143696.html

    As a parent, I can say that some seem to think that kids need access to food 24/7. If they are playing at the park, do they need food? Probably not. Can they use a picnic table to eat instead of the playground? Absolutely. Can we all do a better job of thinking of others as we go through life? Of course we can.

    Ask away, allergy mama. Every now and then, you will find someone who sees how exhausted you are from keeping your child safe all day, every day. They will offer you a helping hand by keeping their child’s food away from your child. But I can tell you from experience that you will also encounter some angry, mean, selfish people along the way as well. Ignore them. Some day they will have a hardship of their own to bear.

  8. Cady says

    Yesterday I brought my toddler to the playground and watched three other families feed their children snacks while playing. One child was allowed to bring her snack cup everywhere the entire morning. There was a LOT of snack stealing going on… All three parents complained at some point about their kiddos not eating well at meals. I hear this a lot from fellow parents of young kids and I can’t help but wonder how much better the toddlers would fare at mealtimes were they not permitted and/or encouraged to graze constantly. No one spilled food, but no one washed hands or cleaned up in any way whatsoever.

    I was thinking about this issue at our local AAA baseball stadium the other day while we chowed down on a bag of peanuts and the fibers and shell pieces blew positively everywhere in the breeze… these poor families! The park holds a few “allergy free” games per season, but I wonder if that’s honestly enough. It doesn’t feel fair for me. Not sure what the answer is though….

  9. Jamie says

    Most of the comments on that article make me sad. People can be so selfish. One comment said it wouldn’t be fair to refuse their 5 year old food on the playground because of other’s allergies. It claimed that the 5 year old wouldn’t understand and would have a fit. I find it hard to believe. My daughtger is 5 and she would understand. She is very understanding to the needs of others.

    I don’t think the requests are over-reaching. She is just asking for people to be courteous. I don’t generally let my children run around while eating, but this article will make me think twice of where I allow my children to eat.

  10. Kate says

    I looked at the Sittenfeld piece. First thing I noticed is that it was accompanied by a picture of a playground merry go round, a potentially dangerous piece of equipment. I ripped up my hand using one of these as a kid. I mention this because there are all sorts of risks when one decides to go to a park or playground area. Should we attempt to modify all of those risks to make the playground the safest possible area?

    I think it is fair to ask people not to be messy, and to be mindful of shared spaces.

    I don’t think it is realistic though to say that a kid can’t have a spontaneous visit to the park unless mom is toting wipes .

    As far as not leaving food unattended, something to consider, but not 100% realistic.

    Most playground areas we have visited are accompanied by park space. These spaces have been designed for family celebrations, lazy picnics etc. Is it realistic that mom and dad are always going to wipe the kids hands down when he dashes back from the playground for a quick snack than goes back to play some more….I don’t think so.

    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.

  11. Amy says

    I posted this on today’s posting, but it probably belongs here.

    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.

  12. Alicia says

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to call for peanut free environments, because you’re putting all your eggs in that basket. I don’t think it teaches children with these life threatening allergies to care properly for themselves, because it’s showing them that somebody else will always be fixing it instead of them. What happens if the parents and child decide not to take proper precautions, and another child breaks the rules and brings peanuts etc in?

    As a child with no allergies I may not have been aware of the severity of allergies like this and thought “why does this apply to me?” Some children have peanut butter and jelly sandwich because that is all their parents can afford and those parents may consider the health and well being over their own child before somebody else’s with food allergies.

    It needs to go both ways. Children with allergies should be taught as soon as possible what foods to avoid and not to eat anything AT ALL prepared by somebody else, even if they swear up and down it’s “safe.” Children with no allergies should be taught how severe allergies are and to not share their lunches.

    Peanuts exist. They exist at work, in restaurants, on planes, on buses, in college. Teaching a child now that everywhere “should be” peanut free may give them a false sense of security and may have potentially deadly consequences in the future.


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