Northwestern Athletics Welcomes Families Managing Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies

Polisky_MikeA food allergy dad got the ball rolling with a phone call and one request: could Northwestern consider having a nut-free game so that his son could attend a game? Northwestern decided to not only grant this one request, but to do something that hasn’t been attempted by a college athletics program to date: go peanut and tree nut free for many games in multiple sports during the year, offering students and fans with nut allergies plenty of opportunities to attend a game and cheer on the Wildcats.

To learn more about what it took to go nut-free at Northwestern, FARE interviewed Mike Polisky, Deputy Director of Athletics – External Affairs at Northwestern Athletics. Download this flyer to view the game schedule..

1. Why did Northwestern decide to go “all in” this season?

It all started with a simple phone call last year. We were contacted by the father of a Northwestern student who is affected by these types of allergies. The student is a big sports fan, like so many, but he wouldn’t be able to attend a game at Ryan Field or Welsh-Ryan Arena because of those allergy concerns. The father wanted to know if there was a way for us to make that happen for his son. After doing our research and coming to a better understanding of the impact of tree nut and peanut allergies on tens of thousands of people who cannot participate, it made sense to take the next step.

We decided to break up our seasons to create more opportunities for families to attend Northwestern games in a safe environment. Ryan Field will be completely peanut and tree nut free for three football games and Welsh-Ryan Arena will be that same way for close to 30 events leading up to the Big Ten opener for the men’s basketball team.

2. What changes needed to be made in order to accommodate the change?

We had to undergo a systemic change from the top down in order to change the way we do things on game day. From Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, to Vice President for Athletics and Recreation, Jim Phillips, to our ushers and security personnel, to our concessionaire partner, Sodexo, everyone needed to be fully on board with this idea, and they have been. Everyone needed to accept responsibility and support one another, and to this point, it’s been fantastic.

3. What were some major challenges in going nut-free?

I think that the biggest challenge was in understanding the layers involved. The logistics are so broad; you have to think about the product you have in place already, the aggressive cleaning measures that need to be done and the unseen areas affected like cooking oil and candies. It’s been important for us to understand all of the places that people are impacted.

4. What has the feedback been like from fans and the community?

The response we’ve seen and heard has been incredibly positive. After we decided to operate peanut and tree-nut free for one football game last fall, we received overwhelming support from all across the country. Even people who weren’t able to be in Evanston that day were thanking us for raising awareness on a national level. That encouragement only strengthened our resolve to create increased opportunities and inspired us to do even more.

5. Any advice for other schools or teams that may add nut-free games?

We’re able to help people attend a game who otherwise may not be able to do so because of severe peanut and tree nut allergies. It’s something that so many people take for granted, and if your team is in a position to provide a memorable experience, why wouldn’t you?

Northwestern is offering football and basketball tickets for their nut free games at a 15 percent discount! Northwestern also will not serve peanuts at Welsh-Ryan Arena for 10 men’s and six women’s basketball games, all 18 home volleyball matches and three wrestling events. For complete schedules or to order online, visit NUsports.com or Download this flyer

Questions from FARE’s Mail Bag

Every day we receive dozens of phone calls, emails, and letters from individuals and families who have questions about food allergies. Below are answers to just a handful of these questions that we have received recently and thought others may benefit from knowing as well.

Can a person with a peanut and/or tree nut allergy eat nutmeg?

Although the word “nutmeg” contains the word “nut,” it is actually a seed, not a nut. Used as a spice in baking and many ethnic cuisines, nutmeg is safe for everyone who does not have an allergy to nutmeg itself.

Can having a blood transfusion cause an allergic reaction because of allergens in the donated blood?

Dr. Scott Sicherer addresses this question in his book “Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends On It.” He says, “When blood transfusions are processed, the liquid (serum) is washed away, so even if trace food proteins had been in the blood donation, the amount left in the material that is transfused would be negligible. There have not been reports of reactions in this situation, although it may be reasonable for a donor providing a directed donation to a person with a food allergy to avoid the allergen for several hours prior to the donation. There is one report of a platelet donation causing a reaction in a child with a peanut allergy (platelets are the blood-clotting component transfused without being separated from the serum). The report is not completely verified, but there may be risk.”

If a product is labeled “Kosher Pareve,” is it safe for someone with a milk allergy?

Kosher pareve is a kosher classification for a food that contains neither dairy nor meat, generally speaking. Kosher classifications do not address cross-contact, however, so a product can still be considered pareve if the product is made in the same facility as or has come in contact with milk. We advise you to not use Kosher labeling as a guide for if a product is safe for those with milk allergies.

I’ve heard some cities are using cheese brine mixed with ice salt as a de-icing agent for roadways. Does this pose a threat to those with milk allergies?

FARE investigated this question with the City of Milwaukee Health Department. Information provided by the Health Department and reviewed by allergists indicates this is a very low risk practice. There is an extremely small amount of protein content in the salt brine, roughly equivalent to three drops of milk per square yard of roadway. This amount is further diluted by mixing with melting snow and ice. It is very unlikely that a reaction could occur from this practice, and any reactions would likely be localized to the skin contact area.

Father’s Day Guest Post: Pete and Dave, Founders of Skeeter Snacks

Dave & RemyIn this special Father’s Day guest post, food allergy dad Dave Leyrer discusses why all dads need to be educated about food allergies. Dave partnered with another food allergy dad, Pete Najarian, to start Skeeter Snacks, a line of cookies and snacks made specifically for those with tree nut and peanut allergies.

Tell us about your family and the food allergies affecting your family.

My wife and I have two children, and our 4-year-old son Remy is allergic to tree nuts and peanuts. Pete and his wife have two kids as well and his 12-year-old daughter Abby is also allergic to tree nuts and peanuts.

How do you manage food allergies in your family? What have been your biggest challenges?

At different ages you employ different strategies. With Remy we teach his older sister to be his advocate and protector as he learns what to avoid. Abby is older so the challenges are different—with pre-teens the job seems to be more about getting her to slow down and remember her allergies and to avoid peer pressure.

What advice would you give to other dads with kids with food allergies?

This is a team effort, and dads have to be as involved as moms. For example, dads who coach sports are often responsible for snack decisions for an entire team, and on most teams there are a variety of different allergies that need to be addressed. We think that all dads need to know about food allergies because whether their kids are allergic or not they are probably going to be tasked with providing snacks for allergic kids at one point or another.

Studies have shown that moms and dads react differently to food allergies in their families. In your experience, is that the case?  

There’s a perception that guys are a bit lazier on the margin, so some might think that dads don’t take it as seriously as we should. But in our experience dads are really on top of things. Pete and I probably take it more seriously than some dads considering we started a company that makes the kind of products we couldn’t find for our kids! Remy and Abby are the reasons we started Skeeter Snacks. We were frustrated consumers; we couldn’t believe that a brand didn’t exist that made it easy to be safe.

From all of us at FARE, we’d like to wish a Happy Father’s Day to Pete, Dave, and all food allergy dads!

EDITOR’s NOTE:  Skeeter Snacks is a FARE Corporate Partner and their products can be found at many of our FARE Walks for Food Allergy.