It Takes a Village

If the comments section of The Internet is to be believed, there is a large percentage of the population who feels that people with food allergies should sequester themselves in plastic bubbles so as to keep themselves safe from the rest of the world. Fortunately, in my personal experience with The Real World, the vast majority of people I come in contact with are incredibly kind and compassionate when it comes to keeping kids with food allergies not only safe, but included. As the mother of a child with food-allergies I get asked fairly frequently what my son’s friends, team-mates, other parents, and coaches can do to help protect him…or at least to not actively harm him.

Internet trolls notwithstanding, this makes perfect sense to me. I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t a parent alive who hasn’t either personally experienced or vividly imagined what it might be like to have something terrible happen to their child. I think we would all do anything we can to help another parent keep their child safe. I honestly believe that most people feel this way. And that is why I wanted to write a post about food-allergy safety in public and shared spaces. Not to convince the few people out there that might disagree that we should all try to help each other when and where we can, but to educate the many more who already want to help but don’t necessarily know how.

My home is an oasis of safety- it’s his home too and he deserves to have a place where he feels secure. My family and close friends communicate with me openly and bend over backwards to make sure we have peace of mind when we visit. His school is legally required to take measures to keep him safe. But public places are, and always have been, a problem. From the grocery cart that someone’s toddler smashed peanut butter crackers all over to the kid running around on the playground with a dripping ice cream cone, there are dangers everywhere. I’ve learned to recognize and avoid them and I’m teaching my son to do so as well, but most people simply do not see food as a threat. And honestly, they shouldn’t have to. It is primarily my responsibility to keep my son safe until he’s old enough to take it on himself, but I’d like to share a few things you can do (or not do) to help protect kids like my son and prevent parents like me from descending into stress-induced panic attacks when they’re out and about.

  1. Clean up after yourself. I’m talking candy bar wrappers, used napkins, peanut shells on the ground (it’d be super awesome if we could all just agree as a society not to do this at all), smears of unidentified goo on a table, dropped goldfish ground into a carpet… these things have deadly potential to us (also, it’s gross and it should be cleaned up anyway but I recognize that is a personal value judgement so take it with a grain of salt). Even if you’re in a place where employees should be tidying up, consider that it might be closing time before that happens, if at all, and who knows how many people might come in contact with this stuff before then. I clean up other people’s garbage all the time, but then I’m afraid to touch my own kid because I don’t know what’s on my hands. So it’s a kindness and it’s good for your community to just toss your trash or take it with you if there’s no handy receptacle and maybe even wipe up any extra mess- like those ice cream drips. You never know whose life you might be saving.
  2. Wash your hands and your kids’ hands. If you know you’re going to be in a play area, classroom, or other shared space with lots of kids, go ahead and give those hands a scrub. It’s not going to hurt anything and you’ll help ensure that you’re not spreading germs OR little bits of allergen protein all over the room. This is particularly important when there’s lots of touching of each other or shared toys/equipment- think dance class, sports team, playroom, etc. Peanut and tree nut proteins in particular are persistently sticky and can be transferred easily from hands to surfaces to mouths. Hand sanitizer, while great for killing germs, has no effect on allergen proteins, so washing with soap and water is important.
  3. Be open. If a parent approaches you on the playground to ask whether that’s peanut butter in your child’s sandwich, please know they’d much rather NOT have to. Recognize that they are doing it out of necessity and at the same time, trying to set an example for their own child about how to speak up and advocate for themselves. My son doesn’t want to be rude (and neither do I) but if it is not safe for him to play with your child right now, he needs to know that. In a few years he’ll have to ask a girl what she’s eaten before he kisses her and I need him to get comfortable with these awkward conversations now.
  4. Ask questions. Food allergies are on the rise. One in every 13 children has a food allergy; that’s on average two in every classroom. So the likelihood of there being a food-allergic child in in any given group of kids is pretty good. In less formal situations, like birthday parties or meet ups with people I don’t already know, I’m probably not going to jump up and volunteer this information about my son. I don’t expect anyone to plan their party around us, so if someone pulls out peanut butter crackers I am much more likely to find a reason to quietly take my leave than to put my shy son in the spotlight by asking for accommodations. On the other hand it makes me feel absolutely AMAZING when a birthday party invitation says “let us know about any food allergies” or the host of a get-together asks if anyone is allergic before passing out gogurts to all the kids.

In more organized situations like sports teams or school, I let the teacher or coach know up front and give them a letter with a list of allergies and suggested safe snacks to share with other parents. I include my contact info because I KNOW what a pain it can be to come up with snack when it’s my turn and I want to make it as easy as possible. If you know there’s a food-allergic child in your kid’s class or on their team, reach out. Ask what is safe, what they’re comfortable with, and how you can include them. I absolutely do not expect everyone in every situation to cater to us and there will always be things my son will just have to miss out on. But sometimes whether he gets to participate or not comes down to something as simple as buying a different brand of popcorn and situations like that are so easy to fix!

So there you have it. Just a few little things you can do to make someone else’s life easier and keep a child safe. These little things are more appreciated than you know.


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