Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Bully’s New Weapon

I’m heading out on vacation in an hour, so I’m posting this week’s blog a little early…

Last week, I mentioned that one of my worries is that someday a bully might try to harm my son by smearing peanut butter on him in school. That’s not a worry I just made up. Just a few weeks ago, a teen student in Kentucky was charged with a felony after putting peanut butter cookie crumbs into another student’s lunch box with the intent to harm him.

In other cases, children have actually smeared peanut butter on allergic kids, threatened to smear them, or threatened to force peanut products into their mouths. A couple of years ago, a student threatened to hold his teacher down and force a Nutter Butter down her throat.

It’s not that these bullies are worse than other bullies. It’s simply that they’ve found a new addition to the typical bully arsenal of physical and emotional weapons. (See this article from Canada, for examples of this bold new world of bullyism.)

The blog world is a-buzz with this latest cookie crumb case and other stories like it. Here are just a few interesting posts worth checking out, including one from Rush Limbaugh. (Yes, every once in a while, planets align in mysterious ways, and in this particular case, Rush and I actually agree on something.)

MomLogic (a mom talks about how both of her allergic kids have been "peanut bullied" at school)

Peanut Free Mama (readers comment on whether they think the felony charge is too harsh)

Rush Limbaugh (Transcript of a phone call where he responds to a woman asking his opinion of the “craziness of the nut allergy people)

Kids Food Allergies Blog (a parent discusses the contrast between Rush Limbaugh’s take and the patently absurd Harper’s article which tries to dismiss peanut allergies as a national hysteria instead of a medical reality – which makes me so angry I can’t talk about it right now… stay tuned for a future blog entry on that)

It’s easy to get emotional about bullying. It’s an age-old problem, and one that will never go away, because human beings are human beings, and that means someone will always be trying to find ways to feel powerful over someone else. It’s unfortunate that they’ve found a new weapon, but it isn’t surprising. Bullies can be just as creative as the next guy. Too bad they can’t channel their ambitions in a more positive manner.

This does mean that we, as parents of allergic kids, have one more thing to teach our children about when it comes to facing bullies in the school. Same problem, different variation. But we can do it, and our kids are strong.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Do I Worry? Duh!

Natalie Williams, a pediatric psychology resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, is conducting an Internet-based survey to learn more about the challenges faced by parents of children with food allergies. The survey asks questions about parenting issues, parent worries and concerns, and child emotions and behaviors. She’s asking everyone who is a primary caregiver of a food-allergic child to take her survey so she can help develop the body of knowledge about how food allergies affect the daily lives of children and their parents. (Do take the survey. It’s here.)

I just participated in the survey, and it was interesting to see the types of questions being asked. Sometimes, however, I wasn’t sure how to answer a question. For example, I was supposed to indicate if “I worry about my child’s future,” and the choices were “Never,” “Sometimes,” and “Often.”

The thing is, I do worry about my child’s future, but not usually in relation with his food allergies. I worry about his ability to control his rambunctious, high-energy, emotional approach to life so that he fits in a little better with his colleagues when he enters the workforce. I worry that he’ll inherit a world polluted beyond the limits of human health. I worry that he’ll lose his fascination with science and sports and end up being sucked into the black hole of video games when I no longer have control of his schedule. I worry that a girl will break his heart. I worry that he’ll be lured in by drugs. I worry that he’ll be lured in by a religious cult. I worry that he’ll be lured in by a traveling circus.

I look at the world he’s growing up in, and I am wracked with concern that the America I love is becoming the laughing-stock of the world because we’ve lost sight of some fundamental human values like acceptance, charity, education, and support, and replaced them with political charades like intolerance, greed, territorialism, and prejudice. I worry that we’ve become a society more interested in which big-bosomed gold-digger marries the jerk on some reality TV show than in whether or not the majority of Americans can afford basic health care. I worry that I’ll be hit by a bus and won’t be there to help guide him to adulthood. I worry that he’ll get his feelings hurt at school.

I worry that he won’t be able to get a scholarship to college, and that the amount of money I have managed to save for his college so far won’t buy him a venti latte at Starbucks when he finally gets to campus. I worry that he won’t make the high school soccer team, even though he’s only in third grade right now. I worry that the city of Venice may sink into the sea before the dollar strengthens enough so that I can take my son there to see it. I worry that he’ll get nibbled by a barracuda the next time he goes snorkeling. I worry that his hormones are about to kick in, and I’m not going to be a patient enough mom to handle that. I worry that he’ll want to buy a motorcycle someday.

And yes, I worry that he’ll eat something with nuts in it someday and have a bad reaction before help arrives. I worry that before too long, he’ll be out of my reach, and traveling through hazelnut-infested countries without me. I worry that he’ll kiss a girl who’s eaten a peanut butter cookie. I worry that his kids might someday have even worse food allergies than him. I worry that he’ll make a student mad at school someday, and that kid will smear peanut butter on him to get even. Of course, I also worry that the angry kid will skip the peanut butter smearing and just haul off and paste my son with a mean left hook. Kids find ways to hurt each other, and the weapons change to suit the moment.

So there are a lot of reasons why I worry about his future. Only some of them are food-allergy related. Most of them are typical parent worries, and I think most parents lie awake at night dreaming up disasters we have no business dreaming up. My dad said his grandmother used to lie awake at night worrying that someday her husband might want to move the family to a ranch with an open cow tank, and maybe her kid would fall into it and drown. She would worry about this, even though they weren’t moving and had no plans to move. And I thought I worried unnecessarily.

It will be interesting to see the results of this survey. I wonder if we food-allergy parents really worry more than other parents, or if we all worry the same amount and just have a few variations based on our own particular circumstances.

I wish I didn’t worry quite so much. But when they handed me that adorable little caterwauling bundle of joy at the hospital nine and a half years ago, the doctor said, “Congratulations, it’s a boy. And along with him, here’s your bag of worries, your box of obsessions, your knapsack of fears, and your suitcase of paranoia. Enjoy him!”

And I do enjoy him, despite all the worries. He’s worth every moment of it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Getting Creative with School Substitutions

Last night, I was up ‘til midnight making chocolate bars. My son’s science teacher decided that since it was finally going to be sunny today (is spring finally here?), she wanted to make solar-powered mini ovens and let the kids make Solar S’mores. So she asked my friend Kim (mother of my son’s best friend) if she could get safe supplies. Kim handled the graham crackers and marshmallows, and I handled the chocolate bars.

Fortunately, Hershey’s developed a recipe for their Special Dark Chocolate Bark for people who are allergic to milk. We’ve made it and used it before in S’mores, and it works wonderfully. (See below for the recipe.)

At the beginning of every school year, Kim and I tell the teachers that we can find safe substitutes (milk-, egg-, and nut-free) for just about anything they ever need for any classroom activity, treat, project, or celebration. Most of the time, the substitutions are pretty easy – to make gingerbread houses, we used safe graham crackers, safe frosting, safe gumdrops, and other safe candies. You want to have hot dogs? We can find safe hot dogs and buns. Candy for a candy cannon? We’re all over that, with Starbursts and Skittles. Need safe paella for the third grade program – just use chicken instead of crab, and Swanson’s chicken broth instead of bullion cubes, and we’re good to go!

Every once in a while, we get to really stretch our creativity. A couple of weeks ago, a teacher asked us what to use instead of taffy to demonstrate metamorphic rocks. You should have been listening to the phone conversation between me and Kim. “Well, what exactly will the kids be doing to show metamorphic rock? Are they compressing it under heat? Are they changing its form from granular to crystal? Are they stretching it or folding it? Are they showing layers or texture?” We sounded pretty darn scientific. And we probably over-thought it, by a long shot.

But we came up with a bunch of different ideas for the teacher, from the putty you use to stick posters to the wall, to marshmallows, to slime. It turns out she just wanted the kids to stretch the stuff, so she went with our idea that most resembled her original request of taffy – Airheads candy.

We’re proud to say that in 4 years of school, we’ve yet to be stumped by a teacher’s request. When we can, we try to steer the teachers away from food products at all (instead of piƱata candy, I found small toys and some old Mexican coins that the kids loved), just because we want to see less candy in schools as a general rule that has little to do with food allergies and more to do with healthy overall eating habits. But when food is really called for, we can supply that, too.

Sometimes it feels like a hassle, but it’s worth it to keep our kids (and other allergic kids) safe, and worth it to teach the teachers that there really are safe substitutions for all their favorite classroom activities.

And I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to be challenged to think in new ways. There’s something refreshingly creative about spending a few minutes brainstorming crazy ideas about what metamorphic rocks and Airheads have in common.

By the way, here is the recipe for the chocolate bark, from Hershey’s and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN):

Hershey’s Special Dark Bark
Milk-free, Egg-free, Wheat-free, Peanut-free, Soy-free, Nut-free

1 (8-oz.) package of Hershey’s Unsweetened Baking Chocolate, broken into pieces
1/4 cup plus 1 tsp. shortening
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups confectioners sugar

Grease 9x9-inch pan. Set aside. In medium bowl, microwave chocolate and shortening on high for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, until mixture is melted and smooth when stirred. Add vanilla extract. Gradually stir in sugar. If mixture becomes too thick, knead with clean hands. Spread out in prepared pan. Cover tightly. Refrigerate until firm. Break into pieces. Store, well covered, in refrigerator.

Note: After changing the formulation on its Special Dark chocolate bar to include milk, Hershey’s developed this recipe for milk-allergic consumers.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Recipe in Home & Heart Magazine

Today marks the start of Food Allergy Awareness Week! All across the country, individuals and groups are finding ways to spread the word about the dangers of food allergies.

I’m especially excited this week, because the May issue of the magazine I manage, Home & Heart, goes on sale tomorrow (Tuesday, May 13) at newsstands everywhere. This issue’s theme is “gift-giving throughout the year.” In it, we spotlight gifts you can make and give for all sorts of fun little holidays, from Administrative Professional’s Day, to Chocolate Chip Day, to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The best part is, I got to include Food Allergy Awareness Week as one of the gift-giving holidays, and I added my own recipe for “Mom’s Best Apple Bread.” It’s free of nuts, eggs, milk, and soy. To make it wheat-free, substitute your favorite flour blend.

So if you’re interested, look for the May issue of Home & Heart beginning tomorrow for lots of great crafty ideas for holidays throughout the year. And just to get you in the mood for Food Allergy Awareness Week, here’s my recipe from page 28. Enjoy!

Mom’s Best Apple Bread

2 c. flour (1 c. whole wheat and 1 c. white)
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 1/2 c. applesauce
1 - 1 1/2 c. apple, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 c. oil
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 Tbsp. white vinegar
1 1/2 Tbsp. apple juice or water

In large bowl, mix together the first six dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, mix the applesauce, chopped apple, and oil. In a large cup, mix together the remaining baking powder, vinegar, and apple juice or water. The mixture will foam rapidly. Pour it immediately into the apple mixture and mix well. Blend wet ingredients into dry ingredients.

Line a loaf pan with parchment paper and spray the paper with cooking oil. Add batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 – 55 minutes. Let the bread cool in the pan on a cooling rack for 10 – 15 minutes before removing from the pan. (You can cover the bread with a dish towel to keep it from drying out.)

Tip: For a delicious variation, add 1/2 c. raisins or dried cranberries to the apple mixture.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Snack Bars in Paradise

A friend’s daughter is headed to Africa and Europe in a few weeks, for a summer’s worth of adventure. She’ll be visiting friends and relatives, as well as doing volunteer work while she’s there. She’s about twenty, full of energy and life and enthusiasm and joy.

And she’s allergic to a whole bunch of things. Her mom’s a tad worried.

But the best way to travel safely is to be prepared, so that’s exactly what the girl and her mom are doing. The mom asked me if I’d found any protein or snack bars that were free of nuts, milk, and eggs. I got on the UFAN forum and asked for recommendations, and everyone agreed that the Enjoy Life snack bars are tasty, and they’re free of all 8 of the “Top Ten” allergens. The mom went online that very night and ordered several boxes. (Click here for the Enjoy Life Foods website.)

When you’re traveling – especially in other countries – finding food without your allergens can be tricky. Sometimes you get lucky and find waiters who speak English, foods you trust, and markets that look reputable. Sometimes you don’t. So carrying your own food with you is essential. Even if you end up not needing it, it’s better to have it than wish you did. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s all that yummy or terribly balanced. You just need to survive for a few days or weeks, and you can do that on bottled water and snack bars if you have to. You can always get back onto a healthier diet when you return.

The other thing this mom and daughter are doing is finding translations for “I’m allergic to…” in all the languages where she’ll be traveling (which is a lot!). A great place for preprinted cards that can help you tell waiters what you’re allergic to, or ask someone to get you medical help fast, is Their website has all kinds of helpful tips and resources, and preprinted cards in more languages than you can shake an EpiPen at.

Watching this friend of mine plan for her daughter’s vacation, I realize that it doesn’t matter how old and self-sufficient our children get. We will always worry about them and we will always do anything we can to keep them safe – even when they’re all grown up and heading to the other side of the planet.

I ordered some of the Enjoy Life snack bars myself, to let my son try them. He liked them, and took one in his lunchbox to school today. Someday, my son wants to travel to Japan. We travel a lot and have always had good luck wherever we’ve gone, but Japan makes me more nervous because we don’t speak even a jot of Japanese and I know they use a lot of peanut oils and nuts in their cooking. But even so, someday he may get there, and I know I’ll be just like this friend of mine – stocking up on safe snack bars and other suitcase-friendly foods that will turn his vacation from a trip through a land mine into the trip of his dreams.

I’ll have to do it. It’s in the mom handbook. I’ll be standing there in the airport with all the other moms, saying, “Have a nice trip! I love you! Here’s a snack bar!”