My Mom, the Original Food Allergy Pioneer

Written by Kristen Duncan Williams on May 9, 2017

Would you believe that less than 30 years ago, a severely food allergic person living in a small, rural town on the North Fork of Long Island might have to take two ferry boats for a bag of rice cakes?

Back then, living life as a food-allergic person seemed challenging at best. The modern conveniences of large-scale natural food markets like Whole Foods didn’t exist. At the time, smaller health food stores catered to different dietary needs.

I would know.

Having grown up on rural Long Island in the ’80s with a sibling with severe food allergies, our lives were different than most. We felt a bit like foreigners among friends. We knew no other families at the time with children who had food allergies. Some people considered us paranoid and a little weird. And the frustrating part was that we were simply trying to navigate our lives as pioneers on a subject most people knew little about.

My mother was way ahead of her time

Some might say she was the original food allergy hack master. As a kid, I would watch her in action as she found clever ways to incorporate my sister’s needs so she could feel like one of us.

My sister was allergic to corn and dairy, which meant no popcorn at the movies. But my mother made sure she still got that big-screen experience. She would toast rice cakes (the very same rice cakes she had to take two ferry boats to obtain), pour melted soy butter on them, and crumple them up in a bag like “popcorn.”

When my sister attended birthday parties, my mother made her a special birthday basket full of safe treats. It helped her to not feel left out. My mother labeled food containers before food allergy alert stickers were a “thing.”

As kids, we went along with the many life hacks my mom created. My mother would order rice bread all the way from Oregon state and ship it to Long Island. At the time, many companies would only sell the rice bread in wholesale bulk. But my mom did what she had to. She ordered 25 loaves at a time and then had us knock on doors of various neighbors to ask if they might be willing to host a few loaves of bread in their freezers. This went on until she finally invested in her own industrial-size freezer to house our allergen-free foods.

Family trips and trip ups

On family trips, when we’d travel to different cities, we toured health food stores as if they were museums. Finding new products to expand our family diet was fun. But these trips could often turn stressful. I recall one time where my mother grabbed a familiar brand of potato chips for my sister. It was a tried-and-true brand that she should’ve been able to eat. However, she immediately broke out in hives and had trouble breathing. It turns out, at the time, some brands would change the type of oil they use when items are produced in a different state.

From then onward, we traveled with luggage for a family of four, plus a suitcase devoted only to allergy-friendly foods. We just never knew what foods we might be unable to find.

Life now

I now have two food-allergic children of my own with combined allergens. Altogether, they’re allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, soy, sesame, strawberries, mango, and shellfish. At first, in some crazy way, I felt lucky to have been born with a sibling with severe food allergies. I spent the last 30-plus years reading food ingredient labels anyway. What could be possibly be different now?

Everything.

Everything is different now. When I need dairy-free cupcakes for a party, I am lucky enough to be able to afford a pre-boxed, wheat-free, dairy-free, peanut-free mix from Whole Foods. When I need allergy alert labels for my kid’s lunchbox, I have a range of colors and styles to choose from on various websites. When I need bread, I don’t have to buy 25 loaves or ship them from Oregon. In my cupboards alone, I have more allergy-friendly products from one shopping trip than my mother probably ever saw her in her lifetime of raising my sister in the ’80s.

“It was a very different time then,” says family friend and health food store owner, Shelly Scoggin of The Market.

“During this time, your mother was in my store often seeking food alternatives,” she tells me. “However, there were only a handful of people we knew with food allergies. Foods back then were very simple and not as tainted. Not as many people were as sick back then. It was only just seven years ago I added and devoted an entire freezer to my store containing gluten-free products. Now I sell allergy-friendly alternative milk puddings, dairy-free cake mixes, chickpea crisps with Himalayan salt. Times have most definitely changed.”


Kristen Duncan Williams is the Founder of FAKS: Families of Allergic Kids in School. FAKS is an organization devoted to spreading more food allergy awareness within school communities. For more information contact: http://faksbrooklyn@gmail.com 

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