California’s Food Allergy Tribe Helps Kids and Parents Cope

Grady Collins and his buddy Tristan Kam giggle as they sculpt monsters out of gluten-free Play-dough. “I’m going to eat you!” Grady’s monster threatens Tristan’s monster. The seven-year-olds have gathered for Food Allergies Rock, a concert and event catered toward the Bay area’s food allergic kid community.

More than 200 food allergic kids, their parents, their friends and allies, mill around the County Fair building in Golden Gate Park, sampling gluten-free baked goods, and dairy-free ice cream sandwiches. “We are currently in the epicenter of The Tribe,” says Mireille Schwartz, founder of the Bay Area Allergy Advisory Board. “Here is a place where we bring celebration, music and food.”

Nearly six-million children in the United States have food allergies, according to a study published in June in the journal Pediatrics. That’s about one in 13 kids, or two kids in every classroom. As a result, food allergy businesses, online communities and even musical genres, have emerged to meet the needs of this growing cohort.

Scientists don’t know exactly why more and more children have food allergies, but many researchers point to the Hygiene Hypothesis, which suggests that the upsurge in food allergies can be attributed to the increased use of vaccinations, anti-bacterial soaps, and a lack of exposure to dirt and allergens. In other words, the sterility of modern society keeps kids underexposed to bacteria and foods that normally help them develop healthy immune systems.

Tristan, for one, suffers from an array of food allergies. He’s allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and more. He must avoid food at social events and birthday parties, or he would risk going into anaphylactic shock. In June, about an hour after eating a hamburger from In-N-Out, he started to cough and complained to his mother, Sarah Chuk, that he had a stomachache. “Then the wheezing started, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach,” Chuk wrote on her blog. Chuk administered Tristan’s EpiPen and rushed him to the ER. After a few hours in the hospital, Tristan recovered from the incident, “You’re always with this anxiety in the back of your mind,” Chuk says.

Chuk and Irene Chu started the blog Get Allergy Wise, to provide a support system and information hub for food allergic families in the Bay area and beyond. They organized Sunday’s event as a coming out party for the website.

“When you have food allergic kids it puts you in this different world and you feel like you always have to make them safe,” Chu says. “When you have other friends or acquaintances who also have to deal with that, you’re experiencing the combat, or being in the trenches, together.”

Food Allergy Musician Kyle Dine knows the feeling. He’s allergic to
tree nuts, peanuts, eggs, turmeric, mustard, shellfish and salmon. While growing up in Toronto he didn’t know any one else with food allergies. He felt isolated because of his condition, and as a result, he rebelled against it, taking risks and failing to read labels. Seven years ago his throat closed up after he accidentally consumed a cashew-tainted dessert. He started strumming allergy-themed ditties a couple of years later as a summer camp counselor, and released his first CD, “You Must Be Nuts!” in 2007. Now he tours schools and food allergy expos in Canada and the United States.

Dine sports a “Food Allergies Rock” T-shirt, and invites the little ones up to the dance floor. “Are we ready to rock today?!” Dine says. “We’re not only going to have a concert, we’re going to have a party.” His set list includes songs like “My Epineph-Friend,” “I Wrote a Song About My Allergies,” and of course, “Food Allergies Rock.” He brings out a puppet he calls Epi-Man, a singing EpiPen-equipped super hero. Enthralled, the kids dance and sing along.

Dine thinks food allergies can impact kids’ lives in positive ways, as he sings in the song “Food Allergies Rock”: “Food allergies rock/To tell you the truth I’d rather have them than not/Food allergies rock/I’m happy with what I’ve got.”

Events like Food Allergies Rock help kids realize they’re not alone, and helps them become their own health advocates, Chuk says. She hopes to organize more food allergy community events in the future.

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