By Robin Comey, Executive Director, BECC and parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies
Last year during Food Allergy Awareness Week, Aetna Insurance Company’s corporate headquarters lit their sign teal in honor of the 32 million Americans with food allergies. In Washington DC, we were fighting for policies like the FASTER (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research) Act to both improve the safety of those in the food allergy community and expand the research necessary to find new treatment and collect data. While here in Connecticut, we successfully passed SB 706, An Act Concerning Epinephrine Auto Injectors, making epinephrine available in public venues but were falling short on passing any sort of substantive food allergy restaurant policy that would mandate enough training and education that would protect customers with life threatening food allergies. But those were different times.
This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, people impacted by food allergies are smugly smirking from behind our face masks thinking, welcome to our world. The irony of the COVID-19 public health precautions in the food allergy community is not lost on us. After all, we have been screaming about cross contamination from mountain tops for as long as we can remember. We’ve had to spend our weeknights at PTA and Board of Education meetings advocating for changes in policy and fighting for accommodations at afterschool events. I’d have to spell out to teachers that my kid wasn’t actually being rude, he just didn’t want to touch the classroom door knob. Getting our schools to understand that exposure to dangerous allergens from cross contamination could literally kill our children was a full-time job.
Now it’s a COVID-19 world and all of a sudden everyone understands. School systems are talking about handwashing like they’ve never heard of it before. Regular folks are wiping down groceries, playground equipment and removing clothes in hallways, recognizing contamination from this virus could be lurking everywhere. And it most certainly is! This is how people with food allergies live. Every. Single. Day.
The Branford Early Childhood Collaborative with a group of dedicated volunteers hold monthly support groups on the Shoreline, one for kids and another for parents/caregivers. The parent group has been running since 2009 and Food Allergy Friends, a professionally facilitated support group for kids, since 2014. Both programs are funded by a community outreach grant thanks to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) and attract families from across the state.
And like all the other activities during COVID-19, we’ve moved online. At the recent meeting, I casually asked parents if they or their kids were feeling any additional pressures since COVID-19. Not surprisingly, all I got back were a couple of shrugs. After all, we’ve been preparing for this our whole lives. And now we’re confined in the safety of our own homes. This is manageable, it’s out there, in the big world where the real danger lies.
As advocates we often joked, if only we could get people to care about the policies we were trying to move forward as much as they cared about where to buy a cereal made in a facility free of dairy, we’d actually succeed in getting people off their couches. But now we have Lixey, the glove wearing nurse, whose video has gone viral describing to the rest of the world what we have always known about cross contamination. It’s our collective eureka moment.
So this year, as we recognize Food Allergy Awareness Week, food allergy families across the state are hoping that this crisis leads to new guidelines that include safe food handling and additional protections from cross contamination. We are hopeful that when school opens back up administrators will have a better understanding of the dangers to our kids. And wouldn’t it be great if additional procedures and trainings are embraced in restaurants across the country so people are protected from not only disease, but also unwanted allergens? We think it would.
Robin Comey is a food allergy advocate, Executive Director of Branford Early Childhood Collaborative and State Representative for the 102nd District of Branford. For more information on the Food Allergy Support Groups visit www.branfordbecc.org