by Susan Mikula Campbell
With all the things that can cause parents gray hairs these days, you would think something as innocent as a birthday cupcake or the childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wouldn't be on the list.
The truth is that a food allergy can be potentially deadly.
Food Allergy Research & Education works on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, including all those at risk for life-threatening anaphylaxis. According to FARE, this disease affects one in every 13 children in the U.S. - or roughly two in every classroom.
Local families affected by food allergies will participate in a FARE Walk for Food Allergies on Aug. 10 at Parkside Lodge in Buffalo's Delaware Park. Their goal is to educate the public, bringing awareness, tolerance and understanding of the problems caused by food allergies, as well as to raise funds for research.
This will be the third year Michelle and Mike Washington of Wheatfield have participated in the FARE Walk. They expect to have at least 10 friends and family members on their team, including daughter Samantha, 5, and son Parker, 3 1/2.
It's Samantha who has food allergies. It started when she was 9 months old and put on baby formula after being breastfed. The frightened parents found themselves dealing with a baby who had hives from head to toe.
Samantha is allergic to eggs and dairy products. She gets blood tests every year to check her allergen levels. At age 3, it was determined she outgrew her nut allergy and her parents are hopeful the same will happen with eggs and milk.
"It's certainly a daily challenge," said Michelle. "Milk and eggs are found in so many things ... hand lotions sometimes have milk products in them."
Samantha also is contact allergic, which means she doesn't have to ingest something to have a reaction, such as hives or having her airway close up. Not normally allergic to pets, she had a reaction when licked by a dog that apparently had eaten dog food containing eggs or milk products.
"Every place we go we have an EpiPen (epinephrine autoinjector) with us. Thankfully to date, we've never had to use one," Michelle said.
An even bigger challenge will come this fall when Samantha heads to kindergarten. Michelle started meeting with the principal, school nurse and other parents in the Starpoint School District in February. As a counselor in the Ken-Ton School District, part of Michelle's job is to ensure that children with disabilities and allergies are granted their legal rights, sometimes as simple as having a nut-free classroom or having everyone wash their hands before entering the classroom.
Having family and friends who understand makes a world of difference, she said.
"Both of our mothers make cakes from scratch and never have ice cream," she said. "Alternatives are out there, you just have to know where to get them and what they are."
Melissa and Ben Richey of Grand Island will be part of the FARE Walk for the first time this year to support their 6-year-old son Evan, who has a severe peanut and tree nut allergy. Also on Team Evan are older brother Colin and younger sisters Ava and Mara, as well as grandmother Fran Mergl.
One of Evan's twin sisters also was diagnosed with a nut allergy about two years ago, but when testing was done this year, it was found she had apparently outgrown the allergy. Testing included a three-hour stint in the doctor's office to reintroduce her to peanut butter.
"That was a huge, huge day in our house, and very liberating for her," Melissa said.
Evan's allergy is much more severe. His parents are diligent about checking the food he eats and not shy about talking with restaurant managers or chefs.
They once dealt with an allergic reaction after Evan had eaten some cut up fruit at an event. Luckily, the event was near his doctor's office and he received immediate care. The only thing the doctor could say was that possibly the person preparing the fruit used a knife or plate or touched something that had come in contact with peanuts or peanut butter.
"Something as little as cross contact or something on someone's hands could cause a reaction," Melissa said.
Evan, who just completed kindergarten, will be moving to a new school this year. His former school didn't have a school nurse in the building. His new school has a full-time nurse.
Parents need to work closely with school administration to be sure their allergic children are safe. Her former experience as an elementary school teacher helped her prepare to know what to ask for, Melissa said.
Peanut butter is often a staple in school cafeterias, and even a simple classroom holiday or birthday celebration can present a challenge. If a parent who is bringing in the treat provides a list of ingredients, it can be a bonus.
"As parents, we don't want people to go out of their way to make big accommodations, but when they consider our children's food allergies, it means so much, because they are included," Melissa said, noting that although she always packs and brings food for Evan where ever they go, "he's so grateful for the opportunity to be included ... to be a part of what everyone else is doing."
Tracy Hurley of Amherst is the chairperson of the Buffalo FARE Walk. She and her husband have two sons with severe, life-threatening allergies, 6-year-old Conlen, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, eggs and peas, and 2-year-old Grady, who is allergic to sesame seeds and eggs. The parents always carry two EpiPens.
"When Conlen was an infant, we noticed he would develop a rash around his mouth, hives and his stool had blood in it," Tracy said. His pediatrician suggested blood testing, and it was found that Conlen was allergic to many things, some of which he has outgrown.
Tracy has made it a priority in her life to educate others about food allergies. She and her husband "believe that through education we can make children with allergies safe, and live a 'normal' life."
All three parents are part of the support group Greater Buffalo Food Allergy Alliance and say it's a great way to get information on food allergies and network with other parents. The group has its own website and Facebook page.
Buffalo's FARE Walk for Food Allergies on Aug. 10 will run from 9 a.m. to noon, rain or shine.
This year, there will be several new free activities, including a bounce house, Zoomobile (reptiles), face painting, fire truck, photo booth, a clown, manicures and pedicures, an obstacle course, karate and dance shows, craft tables, Buster Bison, super heroes, princesses and a disc jockey.
Participants can sign up to walk individually or as part of a team as late as Aug. 10 at the walk. For more information or to register or volunteer, visit www.foodallergywalk.org/buffalo.