A Community Call

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We’ve seen progress…but we need more.

When I was growing up, I never thought about food allergies. Food was shared freely, lunch items were swapped at school and potlucks were a regular event. In my neighborhood, kids ate dinner wherever they happened to be in the evening. We could walk into friends’ homes and help ourselves—without thinking—to whatever was in their refrigerator.

Times have changed.

community bonding

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When my daughter was born 14 years ago, I knew within two days that she had a food issue. She developed hives and eczema on her face after I ate dairy. My doctor laughed off my concerns. My baby had her first anaphylactic reaction at 7 months, her second at 11 months. At the time, I didn’t understand a dairy allergy. I didn’t know the difference between lactose (a milk sugar), whey (a milk protein) and casein (another milk protein).

My daughter’s anaphylaxis changed all that—and it changed me. It introduced an edgy fear that doesn’t go away despite all the EpiPens, wet wipes and “safe” snacks we carry with us. She can get a reaction from simple touching—hives from doorknobs, tables, railings. Playgrounds and ice cream shops became off limits because they caused breathing problems. Visits to the emergency room after church functions were so routine that we changed churches and finally stopped going altogether.

As my daughter grew older, we had to learn to trust outsiders. Sending her off to school or to a birthday party required enormous trust. Eating out meant we had to trust the restaurant staff to follow our instructions, to use safe ingredients, to prepare food separately, to plate and serve it safely. How many times did I explain her dairy allergy only to have the server place her meal on the table with a giant blob of butter or grated cheese on top?

I used to hear this sort of thing a lot: “Well, it only has a little milk in it,” “Milk is on the bottom of the ingredient list, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” “I don’t think it has any dairy.”

We’ve come a long way since then and I’m grateful for the progress … but we need more. Everyone eats, so why not include everyone at the table? Why aren’t more dinner parties, church events, school functions and social gatherings friendlier to those with food allergies? Why don’t science classes take time to explain what happens to our bodies when some of us are exposed to an allergen?

Each of us can contribute to positive change. I challenge you to create a new reality around you and raise the bar of food-allergy and celiac awareness.

Be the person who asks the questions, who strives to understand, who is supportive. Be the parent who is kind, the one who invites the child with a food issue over, the one who doesn’t tolerate bullying. Be the friend, neighbor, relative or teacher who stands up for labeling, for awareness, for inclusion. Be the chef or server who understands their menu—or who knows how to find the answers. Be the restaurant owner or camp director who caters to those on specialty diets.

Be the catalyst for a better world for all humans. We need that. We need you.

Jennifer Ward is owner of Be Free Family Farm, an organic urban farm in Kansas City, Missouri.