The Rising Impact of Food Allergies at Work

If you employ Gen Z, there is a medical disability among nearly 30% of that part of your workforce that you may not even be aware of. That’s in part because the rate of this disability is three times higher in young people than the general population. This disability can be deadly at work. It can cause serious mental health issues. And it can lead to very exclusionary behavior and even bullying. Yet, most likely, you have no idea who in your workforce is affected. What is it? Food allergies.

For those of you that know the founding story of WeSpire, you know I’m an “allergy mom”. My oldest ate a cashew a little before 24 months old and went into anaphylactic shock. We were fortunate to be 10 minutes from Children’s Hospital and made it in time.

Testing showed he was allergic not just to cashews/tree nuts, but also peanuts, sesame, shellfish, and eggs. We were immediately plunged into the world of dissecting food labels — which meant I googled random indecipherable ingredients in our food to see if they were derived from any of the above. Sodium benzoate is not any of those things, but the stories that popped up included research that said when combined with artificial colors, it causes hyperactivity in young boys. I remember thinking, “Is our yogurt the reason he runs around the apartment in circles like the polar bear at the Central Park Zoo?” Needless to say, we stopped buying food with artificial colors.

It was this allergy journey that eventually connected me to a group of “green moms” on the Internet. I read Robyn O’Brien’s book, “The Unhealthy Truth” which showcased the strong environment – food allergy connection. I started a blog about living healthier and more sustainably. The rest, shall we say, is history.

Since his diagnosis, food allergies have risen 50% and allergies to peanuts have tripled. The impact on those affected is sobering. Every three minutes, an allergic reaction to food sends someone to the emergency room. Caring for children with food allergies costs families $25 billion dollars a year. But perhaps the most difficult part is the mental health impact. About one in three children with food allergies report being bullied. People with food allergies have significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety. Schools often ostracize children with allergies by forcing them to eat apart from other children rather than restricting what’s brought to school or making those who brought the risky item sit alone. Can you imagine getting away with that with other disabilities?

Families have to read every label for every single thing they buy, every time, because factories change without notice. We must be hyper vigilant in restaurants, on planes, field trips and school buses. You have to bring your own food, or not go, to most birthday parties, weddings, picnics and dinner parties. Anything with easy cross contamination — buffets, salad bars, ice cream freezers is suspect. Sleepovers can be life or death. I remember getting a call from our neighbor in a panic saying “I just gave the boys pancakes and didn’t realize the flour was gluten-free. It’s almond flour!”  We rushed my son to the ER. You train every caregiver and teacher to use an epi-pen. You train your five year old how to plunge a syringe into his thigh just in case.

The challenges and vigilance take their toll. Research shows that families with food allergies often rate their quality of life lower than those with diabetes or childhood cancer. While my son handles his allergies incredibly well and I’ll take allergies over cancer any day, I’ve heard awful stories of what’s been said to him by other kids and adults.

But there is good news on the horizon on several fronts. My son is participating in a clinical trial of a drug that would “turn off” his allergies. About six months into it, he was able to eat the equivalent of a tablespoon of cashew with no reaction. It’s truly life-changing. A study out this week showed the profound benefits of a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to managing anxiety associated with food allergies. 

So what can people do to be more inclusive of co-workers with food allergies? If you have a cafeteria, work closely with the vendor to take these issues seriously and offer a variety of options. Be sensitive to where, and how, you hold food-related events. Encourage those who have allergies to talk about what support looks like, and doesn’t. Be sensitive to concerns around business travel. Stock epi-pens in emergency kits. 

Most importantly, stop nasty comments or bullying in its tracks. People say things about food allergies they would never say about diabetes, deafness or other congenital conditions. I remember tearing up during a skit at a parent event that derisively mocked not being able to bring peanut butter to school. To get that skit on stage, it passed through a number of rehearsals and no one thought — hmmm, this might be hurtful and inappropriate. People get entitled about their “right” to consume something that can kill the person sitting next to them. Speak up before the person with the allergy has to. They can have their precious trail mix – just eat it somewhere else.

Quote of the Week: “Are we allergic to food or are we increasingly allergic to what has been done to it?”

Robyn O’Brien

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