Danger at dinner table: Kids and allergies to food

  • Article by: JULIE PFITZINGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2013 - 2:59 PM

Out of necessity, parents and kids learn the lesson of vigilance when food allergies are part of mealtime.

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Harris Dirnberger, 17, a senior at Hopkins High school, carries an EpiPen and quizzes restaurant chefs because of his peanut, soy and other allergies.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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When her son Evan was very young, Nicky Forsyth would carefully watch him during every meal, always worried he would have an allergic reaction to something she served, even as she was ultra-cautious to keep everything free of milk, egg and peanut products.

“I was very anxious about food and always scared to let him try anything new,” said Forsyth, whose son experienced his first allergic reaction at the age of 3 months.

As operations manager for the Food Allergy Support Group of Minnesota, Forsyth facilitates the nonprofit group’s bimonthly parent support group. A frequent hot topic among parents: dealing with extended family members who don’t understand the severity of food allergies.

While Forsyth, of Hanover, said that on a day-to-day basis she feels as if her family, which includes two other children, has the food situation under control, there are new challenges to face now that 9-year-old Evan’s social life is expanding.

“He went to a sleepover not long ago, and it was a big deal for me,” Forsyth said. “I don’t want him to be excluded and I like for him to have the same kind of food as everyone else, so I sent along what he could eat.”

Parents look for support

Rebecca Ayaz, executive director of the Food Allergy Support Group, said the most common time for parents to contact the organization is after their child is first diagnosed, which typically happens before age 3. Eight foods are the most common cause of more than 90 percent of food allergy reactions in the United States: cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, tree nuts and peanuts.

“People come to us in crisis mode. They need help, access to resources, and are looking to talk to other parents,” Ayaz said.

The group, which began in 2003, offers a Buddy Program that pairs experienced parents and those with newly diagnosed kids. It schedules webinars on a variety of allergy-related topics and operates a support program for kids in grades one through five where they can connect with other kids with food allergies.

Katy McFall of Edina has learned more than she ever thought she would about food allergies since her only child, Jack, now 14, was diagnosed with a peanut allergy at the age of 18 months.

“Jack learned to read when he was a preschooler, and one of the first words we taught him was ‘peanut’ so he could recognize it on labels,”McFall said.

When Jack started school in Virginia (the family relocated to Minnesota in 2012), his mother worked with school officials to create a 504 Plan, an outgrowth of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which allows all students the chance to have a “free appropriate public education” regardless of any disability.

“Basically, it’s an accommodation plan laid out for Jack, his teachers and for us, providing guidelines on how to work with his allergy,” she said, adding that he was the first child in his school district to have this plan.

McFall took this step because she did not want Jack excluded from any school activity, whether it was making birdseed art projects or enjoying birthday cupcakes for a classmate. The 504 Plan stipulated that McFall would be notified in advance about anything that would require special accommodations for Jack — for instance, she sent cupcakes to school for him that were kept in a freezer to be used as needed.

As Jack got older, he became more skilled in managing his allergies and realizes he has to make the right choices.

Taking control of allergies

The same is true for Harris Dirnberger, a 17-year-old senior at Hopkins High School, who will be going away to college in the fall. His mother, Tiphanie, said she now feels confident about her son’s ability to manage his peanut, soy and other allergies.

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