By: Scott Riccio, FARE Senior Vice President, Education & Advocacy
Tools? A new grill? Sporting event tickets? All of these are, I suspect, common responses to that age-old question, “What does dad want for Father’s Day.” Of course, for those of us who are fathers to children with food allergies, I’d like to add, “a safer, more understanding world.” When asked what I would like for Father’s Day, I often tell my family I already have everything I need from them, but the reality is, I don’t yet have all I need for them.
My daughter is a beautiful, big-hearted, animal-saving, justice (and girls-clothing store Justice) hungry, singing and dancing and theatre-loving, 10-year-old who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. She, and my son and wife, are the gifts in my life that have given me all I need. For them, however, I want so much more. For my wife, I want better migraine treatments, so that she might one day live again without the pain and frustration brought on by these terrible unwelcome additions to our life. For my son, I want a safer world for a young, biracial man, to know that he’ll be judged by the content of his character and the quality of his actions and not the color of his skin.
For my daughter, I want our world, our community to understand her and her allergy better, because to know her is to love her and want to protect her. To understand her food allergy is to understand how little it would really take to keep her safe and healthy (physically and emotionally). I want for school communities (teachers, nurses, administrators and other parents) to feel an ownership of the nurturing and growth of my daughter. In this regard, overall, we have been very fortunate to date, but far more remains to be done. I want for restaurants to understand how important basic practices of food handling, preparation and serving can be to keeping my daughter safe and allowing her to experience eating out at a restaurant like all her friends do. I want for airlines to understand how little it would take (consistent policies on accommodations and basic training for staff) to open the doors for so many more to fly safely. Most of all, I want for my daughter to be able to grow up, live and prosper and laugh and love, without the shadow of a potentially life-threatening reaction always following her around.
I got an amazing taste of what this world could look like and the powerful impact it could have on my daughter just this past Mother’s Day. I was booking a hotel stay for us so we could have a few days in a nice place over the Mother’s Day weekend while we also hunted for houses and explored possible neighborhoods in advance of a move this summer (I know, not a great Mother’s Day gift to my wife to be house-hunting on a weekend dedicated to her!). As I considered our options, I was also looking for a place where we could have a special Mother’s Day brunch. I was struck by how well one menu was laid out in terms of identifying items that were nut-free, gluten-free, etc. This is such a small, yet incredibly rare touch and so I thought, I want to reward that effort, because it made me feel just a bit safer about having our daughter eat there, so I made brunch reservations (and booked the hotel where the restaurant was located too!). The morning of brunch, after we were seated, we got up to look at the options, which were spread across two beautifully decorated rooms. As we began to examine the choices, we saw that a notecard with carefully printed details about whether a particular item was free of any of the top allergens accompanied each food item. We were pleased to see so many options were “nut-free”. We found the dessert table and the cake pops were nut-free! I turned to tell my daughter this and her eyes filled with tears. We went back to our table and the three of us cried a few tears of joy that our daughter could — for the first time in her life — have a cake pop, something she had been unable to enjoy at previous parties and outings. I know it’s a little thing, but for her, it was a very BIG gift, to be free to be her, to make her choices of what to eat and actually HAVE choices. Of course we still had her epinephrine auto-injectors with us and our wipes, and all those things food allergy families go everywhere with. We still had our fear and worry about the possibility of a reaction. But, for a few brief moments, we got to put those in the background a bit and savor a delicious meal with extra helpings of dessert.
As I reflected later that day on the wonder of that brunch, I thought about all the people involved in making that moment possible. Hotel management and staff who had to have been educated on food allergies, labeling, and who invested the time to put appropriate labels everywhere needed and to prepare foods in a safer way. Support group leaders or local food allergy advocates who may have spent time with that staff and management to inform them about the importance of this issue for our community. Advocates in the local, state and national community who have helped drive public policy in various states that supports better labeling of food allergens, better restaurant safety protocols, better community awareness of the severity and importance of food allergy. Leaders and donors to organizations like FARE who have helped make education, advocacy and awareness programs possible. So many people who had a hand in making one little girl and her parents cry tears of joy.
Combined with our efforts to drive forward new treatments for food allergies, this is what FARE’s mission means to me. Our community, our world, can make it possible for our daughter and 15 million Americans just like her to truly enjoy life, health, and hope. I look forward to being part of making it happen and to the day I can say I have all I need not just for myself, but for my daughter, and all those with food allergies in our community, too.