CARRIE is a 30-something mother struggling to talk on the phone with GINA, another mom, as two toddlers and a 5-year-old make a mess around her ankles, smearing food stuffs and other goo on one another.
CARRIE: I’m sorry – MICHAEL, STOP THAT RIGHT NOW! NOW HUG YOUR BROTHER AND SAY SORRY – you were saying?
GINA: Ha ha! Well, we were hoping that Mikey could come over and have a playdate with Ben, and it sounds like you could use the break!
CARRIE: Oh yes, that would be amazing! The twins are driving him crazy – I’m sorry – MICHAEL, DO NOT SPIT ON LOUIS – when would you like to do it. 10 minutes? Ha!
GINA: Ha ha. We can pick him up soon, I just want to warn you that we use a lot of rat poison in our house.
CARRIE: MICHAEL! What? Rat poison?
GINA: Yes, the kids love it, and you know how they are. And it’s sticky. So it’s everywhere.
CARRIE: Um. Okay. I’m not sure I am comfortable with...
GINA: I mean it will be fine as long as he doesn’t put his hands in his mouth.
Carrie looks at Michael, who is wrestling both his twin brothers and blowing raspberries into Louis’s face again. Her face falls.
CARRIE: I don’t think he can play today.
GINA: Aw, Carrie! No! Ben is going to be so sad!
You might not think your kids play with poison regularly, but in the world of food allergy parents, most other kids do.
Conversations like this one happen every day. Or they stop happening entirely because the Ginas don’t understand how to keep their kids’ food-allergic friends safe at their houses, and the Carries don’t feel like they can trust a Gina, who is unused to the safety precautions, to be as hyper-vigilant as she needs to be.
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), nearly 6 million, or 8%, of children have a food allergy, double what it was only a generation before. While there are brands catering to the allergic community and initiatives to spread awareness, few establishments, from restaurants to play areas, consider that for each of those six million kids, there are at least three or four good friends who want to invite them to a family dinner, a movie, a birthday party or just over to play. The audience for “allergy-friendly” foods and activities, then, quickly turns into a quarter of the child population and their parents and at least some of their other classmates’ families. Not to mention the extended families and friends of the child’s parents who gather for holidays and must accommodate allergies also.
Family restaurants, snack brands, play area chains, recipe blogs, children’s museums, movie theaters, bowling alleys and any other brands marketing to parents can only strengthen their platforms by embracing allergy-friendly initiatives that build trust with this growing audience.
After all, kids are the responsibility of their parents, and no sane Carrie is going to stop wiping down her child’s movie theater seats because AMC stops selling Butterfingers at the concession stand, so why not sell the Butterfingers anyway?
Because so much is at stake. From Madison Moms Blog:
It’s hard for people to understand food allergies, or to take them seriously, because how could something as harmless as a glass of milk—literally every human’s first form of sustenance—be anyone’s kryptonite? How could a kid who doesn’t look sick at all be capable of violent, potentially deadly reactions to such an innocuous thing as food?
It’s hard because, as horrible and inconvenient and frustrating as food allergies are, they are not cancer. They are not a heart or brain disease. They are not countless other afflictions that might be considered “worse.”
And yet, food allergies come with the same constant, looming fear: the possibility of death. It just happens to be wrapped up in a relatively healthy-looking package, so that people have a hard time comprehending the severity of the situation or accepting that the threat is actually there. (Which, of course, compounds the danger even more.)
No one is going to suffer life-threatening consequences for not eating a Butterfinger, but a child could if someone eats one while sitting next to him.
Food allergies are widely misunderstood, difficult to navigate and they affect the lives of children. While brands have no obligation to protect kids with food allergies, they have an opportunity to become both trusted and indispensable to all Carries and Ginas trying to protect their kids or the kids in their kids’ lives.
Moreover, brands should consider the reach of the food allergy community. This is a tight-knit group that instantly circulates information because they are all relying on it for their children’s survival. Articles like this one from Snack Safely and this one from Parents Magazine are posted in every local and national allergy awareness forum and support group within days. Carrie saw it and read it five times this morning. She sent it to Gina.
And consider the impact of this article about a minor league baseball team that banned peanuts and Cracker Jacks from their ballpark despite controversy; it even made national news:
The Yard Goats stood firm on their decision.
"Like the old saying goes ... you can’t make EVERYBODY happy ALL of the time, but you can stop a parent from having to administer an EpiPen to a child suffering anaphylaxis at a baseball game," the team said on Twitter after the announcement.
Hear that? That’s the sound of 1 million Carries trying to find a peanut-safe airline (Southwest) to take their peanut-allergic kid to their first-ever baseball game in Connecticut.
With great stakes comes great liability. Given that food allergies can be triggered by hidden landmines that are innocuous to the majority of the population, accidents can happen any time, anywhere, especially when kids are involved. This why many restaurants, play areas and packaged food brands are hesitant to guarantee food allergy safety.
And yet these are the brands that Carries and Ginas most need to step up. From Bon Appetit:
“That’s the whole myth about eating out: you’re supposed to relax and someone else worries about your food,” Michael Mezzina, a Brooklyn-based video editor who also has a serious peanut allergy, told me recently … “Even a trace amount of an allergen (like almonds chopped on the cutting board that a sandwich is later sliced on) can mean a trip to the ER.”
And despite signage clearly banning children from bringing food into soft play areas, this mother learned the hard way that people do not always follow the rules, despite the best efforts of the establishment.
However, brands can do a lot to be considered “allergy friendly” without putting themselves on the block with a guarantee.
- Ensure emergency EpiPens are readily available to patrons or customers. This may require legislation to allow the practice, but many states already have the laws in effect. Administering an EpiPen early can make all the difference to a child (or adult) suffering anaphylaxis – even a few minutes’ delay can have deadly consequences.
- Post checklists to raise awareness. If an establishment cannot provide EpiPens, they can at least post signage reminding parents to keep EpiPens handy. They can also post signage reminding the customers that food-allergic friends are among them.
- Print allergy-friendly menus. You don’t have to make your whole menu nut-free, dairy-free or wheat-free, but you can label foods accordingly on your menu with a statement noting best practices to prevent cross contamination.
- Do not serve products containing the top 8 allergens. While some parents might still pack a PB&J, the probability is still decreased that a peanut-allergic kid will be exposed if Snickers Ice Cream Bars are off the menu.
- Make allergy-friendly options affordable and accessible. If a food allergy kid has a birthday party, his or her parents cannot usually run to a bakery and pick up a $10 superhero sheet cake. What if nut-free or dairy-free options were at the same bakery at the same price? Entire classes would buy their birthday cakes and school treats there.
- Dedicate part or all of a kitchen to allergy safety. Most allergic kids cannot drink a milkshake or a smoothie even without a dairy allergy due to cross contamination. But if the restaurant dedicates a single blender to the food allergic, suddenly, they can.
- Train staff to readily and confidently recite allergy-friendly practices and policies.
- Participate in allergy-friendly promotions. The Teal Pumpkin Project Halloween or the Spread the Love Campaign by Sunbutter are great examples of communities rallying around the food allergic.
The bottom line is that kid-friendly brands should be doing something to accommodate food allergic children, but they do not have to be doing everything.
Food allergies are a unique disability in that life-threatening risk increases so substantially from the actions of other people. Those afflicted truly need a village to support them and reduce risk, especially when children are involved.
The Carries and Ginas of the world need brands that will help their kids socially – the birthday party venue everyone can go to, the class treat everyone can eat, the safety measures everyone breathes easier with – and few brands are doing much at all, which means the field is wide open for now.
However, with allergies becoming more prevalent and awareness spreading, it is only a matter of time before brands lose the opportunity to stand out among the vast majority of parents whose lives are now touched by food-allergic children.