This story was produced in partnership with MSN Healthy Living as part of Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 11-17.
Like many parents of kids with severe allergies, I have gone through a grieving process dealing with the fact that my kids do not have the simple life that most people take for granted. Having an emotional support system through that experience has been so important to get me to a point where I've not just accepted the reality for my family, but that I'm prepared to fight to make the world better for all kids with allergies.
My daughter, Savannah, is 9 years old and has celiac disease and asthma. My son, Skylar, is almost 7 and is allergic/anaphylactic to tree nuts. He also has asthma and cold urticaria, which is an allergic reaction to cold water. This means our family has a very restrictive diet and that my husband and I have to be extra involved at our kids' school and playdates.
Even with an increasing percent of the population developing allergies, there are still so many misperceptions out there, especially around nut allergies. The general public thinks it's just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to worry about. But there are dozens of ingredients derived from nuts that people don't realize could cause a problem, like arachis oil, hypogaeic acid, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, mandelonas, nougat, amaretto and many others. On top of that, for some kids like my son, cross-contamination is another major concern.
I feel like I am navigating a warzone to get my children through the week filled with activities and celebrations with food at every turn. The other day at a party, my son asked why he couldn't eat any of the food. I had to explain to him that he’s not bionic and can't see all the ingredients to know whether a cookie has almond extract in it, or whether someone sliced the cake with the same knife that came in contact with the walnut brownies. It's not as simple as teaching kids to manage their own food allergies. We have to raise awareness among everyone to keep our children safe. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone in the U.S. to the emergency room.
Something that has helped me through the challenges of being a parent of kids with allergies is connecting with other parents who have gone or are going through the same thing. A year ago I went to a Food Allergic Children Education & Support of Michigan meeting where I met Lisa Birkle-Rutter who told me about the No Nuts Moms Group she started on Facebook.
This group has allowed me to vent my frustrations, grieve the reality of my children's food limitations, ask questions, learn from others and gain great ideas. It has been the best way to get a lot of information in a short amount of time. It also helped me through a scary moment when my son broke out in major hives after swimming in Lake Michigan. The other moms in the group answered my questions and gave me great advice before we could see our doctor.
People in the group organize food-free events and playdates for kids. They also arrange “Moms' Night Out” meet-ups for parents to get together and talk about the daily challenges of raising children with food allergies. We also talk about how we can raise awareness among others. There is so much work to be done to educate the public, change misperceptions and provide support for families with food allergies. We try to advocate for more food-free activities at school and outside of school. My daughter recently told me that the hardest part of having food allergies is smelling a birthday treat that she can’t have and then trying to concentrate on schoolwork.
The support I have received from the No Nuts Moms Group has been a lifesaver for my children and myself. When I think about where I was mentally, physically and emotionally a year ago and where I am today, it's night and day.
Since I began dealing with food allergies, there has been some progress to support children and families in this situation. Businesses and schools in our community have become allergy allies and are seeing what an impact they can have. But we can still use more advocates. If you want to be a food allergy ally for the 15 million people that have food allergies, please consider donating to FARE or signing up for a FARE Walk near you.