Local food allergy group offers hope for parents
JoEllen Park, a Rochester resident, is a veteran parent of a child with food allergies.
Park’s daughter is now 10. She was diagnosed with a milk allergy at 10 months and a peanut allergy soon afterward.
"It is hard to explain how significantly our lives changed," Park said. "Every encounter with food has to be carefully thought out and planned for."
There were terrifying steps along the way. "Going to preschool and going to kindergarten took a lot of thought and planning," she said, "and each school year presents new challenges."
Two years ago, Park received a new resource for navigating those challenges: Food Allergies Rochester MN , a support group for people living with food allergies.
About 1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children in the U.S. have food allergies, and the number is steadily increasing. Diagnoses of food allergies nearly quadrupled between 2007 and 2016. Part of that is probably attributable to the medical community becoming more aware of and sensitive to food allergies, but the spike is largely unexplained.
Food Allergies Rochester MN shares new research, presentations by guest speakers and general advice on the second Thursday each month at Autumn Ridge Church, 3611 Salem Road SW, Rochester.
The group has 54 registered members in Rochester and about 100 followers on Facebook and Twitter.
"There is a lot of confusion about food allergies," Park said. "People often have good intentions, and I appreciate that, but truly, knowledge is what is needed. I would want people to know that it is life-threatening serious."
Park tries to attend the evening meetings – a feat, with young children at home. "I probably make two out of three," she said. "The meetings are a great encouragement as a food allergy parent. I also enjoy being able to talk to parents new to this allergy adventure, and sharing ideas with them."
Paige Ma says the support group has some Rochester residents who have food allergies themselves, but is mostly made up of parents of children with serious allergies.
Ma, who founded Food Allergies Rochester MN, has a 6-year-old daughter who was diagnosed, years ago, with multiple food allergies.
Ma carries two epi pens and Benadryl with her at all times. "We need to have multiples at home, school, anywhere we leave her," she said. "In case the first one isn’t enough."
School events, church gatherings, field trips, grocery store samples, and many other everyday destinations and encounters have to be re-evaluated for safety and inclusion opportunities.
Food Allergies Rochester MN is a support group unofficially associated with a national group called Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Ma works with Olmsted Outreach, a local 501©3 to expand the group’s advocacy efforts.
Most of that advocacy happens on the individual level now, by teaching group members how to discuss allergen risks with caretakers and workers in various locations. FARE sponsors legislation, and the group hopes to become more socially and politically involved as it grows, Ma said.
Making the dangers of cross-contamination clear to people who’ve never lived with or seen an allergic reaction is particularly important.
Allergic reactions have a range, Ma said — sometimes consuming a food can cause a rash or hives, but anaphylaxis (and the resulting epi pen use and emergency room trip) is always a risk.
"You have to not be afraid to have those conversations," Ma said. "These kids can have completely normal lives. It’s just a lot of legwork up front."
Ma has asked day cares to swap out snacks such as Goldfish for new, dairy-free options, offered to donate money for food, and even asked teachers to keep beverages that contain dairy out of the classroom to keep her daughter from touching something after it’s been splashed with milk or cream from coffee.
Both Park and Ma described constant stress as their daughters go into new situations. However, connecting with other parents helps immeasurably, they said.
"I want to be vigilant for my daughter and I want to teach her to be vigilant, but I also want her to go and live her life to the fullest and to not let this take over," Park said. "I want her to be confident in her knowledge and her ability to handle all the situations she will encounter. I do not want it to define her or limit her."
What: Food Allergies Rochester MN June meeting
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 13
Where: Autumn Ridge Church, 3611 Salem Road SW, Rochester
More information: foodallergiesrochestermn.org , or find the group on Facebook and Twitter