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Handling Food Allergies in Public

Maybe you can help me out with a discussion that’s been going on in a mom’s group I’m in. One mother whose child does not have any allergies asked the best way to handle allergens in public. The group split into two: parents of children with allergies said that no one should have any allergens in public (outside of restaurants), and parents who said that people should eat what they want where they want when they want. I fall somewhere in the middle but am wondering what your thoughts are on this?

I remember the first time I was on a flight where peanuts weren’t serve, and flight attendants asked all passengers to avoid consuming any peanut products they brought on board with them. This was because someone on the flight had a severe peanut allergy, and that is a particularly scary allergy. As someone who grew up being able to eat pretty much anything, I hadn’t had to think much about this. But I didn’t complain or anything; when I spent a second considering the request, it made perfect sense.

But avoiding bringing any food allergens out in public ever? As far as I can tell that isn’t just unnecessary, it’s unreasonable. Yes, some allergens are severe, but while the rest of us shouldn’t go around smearing peanut butter all over the slides at the park, it’s really up to the parent (or the child as they get older) to be aware of the food being consumed and their overall environment. That might mean wiping down public spaces before letting their child play on them, or bringing their own treats to events. That seems like a bummer, but so many allergens are present in most foods people consume, and it’s unreasonable to request that no one eat pizza (dairy, wheat) or a breakfast burrito (eggs, dairy, wheat) on a bench in Central Park because a toddler might come along and put some of the crumbs in their mouth.

That said, in the case of young children, I see the value in restricting foods that they can bring into the classrooms and cafeterias. Kids — especially younger ones — might not understand the seriousness of a peanut allergy and will want to share the dangerous food with their friends. For me, this means that the danger posed by the sandwich is greater than the inconvenience of a parent not being able to send peanut butter sandwiches in their child’s lunch. I also think it’s reasonable to ask that hosts not have such severe allergens at birthday parties and similar events if a child with an allergy is going to be present.

So, where does that leave us? Should people with allergies just not go out in public? Should parents of kids with severe allergies put them in a bubble? No. Of course not. But they can’t assume no one else will ever eat a candy bar or a seafood sandwich in their general vicinity, and they need to accept that reality. I’d imagine it sucks to have to be so vigilant all the time, but sometimes that’s how life works out.

At the same time, those of us without allergies can still be thoughtful. Avoid consuming the allergens that are most likely to cause severe reactions around people with allergies or around strangers who are essentially captive audiences. This doesn’t mean you can’t chow down on a Snickers at the park; it means don’t pull out some peanuts on the bus and then wipe your hands all over the seat and rail.

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