A Force of Good for Food Allergy

in Food Allergy Advocates
Published: May 12, 2014

Lisa Rutter, Founder,
No Nuts Moms Group

When Lisa Rutter discovered her 3-year-old had life-threatening food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, she felt overwhelmed and fearful. Play dates became a minefield of potential cross-contamination, and she gave up going. But Rutter wasn’t one to become a recluse with her child. Instead, she reached out online, determined to find other allergy moms.

What began as a single online post and one play date blossomed into the No Nuts Moms Group, a network of more than 5,000 allergy moms. Today, the group has an astonishing 50 chapters across the U.S. – a truly national presence. They meet in person for play dates and allergy-friendly events, and daily online for support, advice and good banter.

Rutter is their guiding light, one who’s always there for counsel or to plan a great allergy-friendly event (she recently stuffed 3,000 eggs with non-food toys for 70 kids from the Michigan chapter to hunt on Easter weekend).

In the first of a series called The Allergy Advocates, Allergic Living salutes Lisa Rutter for her outstanding achievements in support of families living with food allergies. While the former law clerk never imagined herself a role model for thousands of women, Rutter has embraced her new calling, even saying becoming a food allergy mom has been a “great experience” for her.

Rutter is more inclined to talk about the need for greater food allergy awareness than to toot her own horn, but members of her group have called her a “force of good” and the “epitome of strength and love”.

Senior Allergic Living contributor Claire Gagné speaks to Lisa Rutter about the evolution of the No Nuts Moms Group and how she became an unexpected national advocate.

Can you tell us the story of how No Nuts Moms Group was born?

My son was 3 years old when he was first diagnosed with peanut and tree nut allergies. I was just shocked because I didn’t know anything about food allergies. The allergist showed us the auto-injector and told us he could die from this.

I felt really alone at the time. We had just moved to Michigan from Illinois and I didn’t know anyone here. I wanted to meet other people so I was going to play dates through a newcomers’ association – and there was food everywhere. I didn’t know these mothers, and I was trying to get these people to like me and want to be friends with me. It was just really uncomfortable, so I stopped going to the play dates.

I wondered if there were any food allergy groups out there where moms and kids could meet up. I didn’t see anything, so I posted an ad on Meetup.com.

It was a few months before I finally got another member. I was so excited; I was jumping for joy. We met up at the zoo. We started to get more members, but it was still slow. I moved the group to Facebook, and that’s when it really started to take off.

After a while people started saying they would love to have a group near them, and I thought, “why not?” People just kept popping up and I kept saying, “I’ll help you set that one up.”

How do the groups work?

Online, we have a Community Facebook Page, which is for sharing news and popular blog posts. We also have a Closed Group and Forum, also on Facebook, which anyone around the world can join. That’s just there to vent, if you need to, and for support. (This group has more than 3,000 members.)

Then we have the local chapters. They have closed Facebook groups as well. These are the groups where you can connect with local people in your area to recommend doctors, grocery stores, food and restaurants. That’s also where you plan to meet up for activities, such as Easter egg hunts and Halloween activities.

How much is virtual, and how much is people meeting face-to-face?

It’s mostly online support, but some groups are more active as far as meeting up. With the Michigan group, we do outings about once a month. The Halloween and Easter events are a lot larger. The online support is amazing. I feel so close to so many of these people, and I haven’t even met them!

When someone starts a new group, they think it’s going to take off right away. But it takes work and sometimes people feel uncomfortable coming out and meeting you if they don’t know you. So I try to tell the leaders – the online support that you’re offering in your area is huge. Then, if you can get them to come out, that’s wonderful, too.

What does the NNMG offer to mothers who have just found out their child has a food allergy?

Support, not judgment. We have a lot of women in our group with strong personalities so I like to keep it as supportive as we can. Everybody does things differently. We just want to offer support and suggestions.

What quality of life issue do you hear about the most?

School is a big issue. A lot of the kids are being excluded and it’s really hard on the parents and kids. Hopefully we can work towards non-food parties and celebrations.

How do we get there?

We just need more education and awareness. You have to be involved. With my son’s school – I probably bug them, but I send them e-mails and articles all the time. Thankfully my son’s class is food-free for celebrations.

Next year, the whole school district is moving toward food-free celebrations. I think the CDC’s new voluntary guidelines for managing allergies and anaphylaxis at school have a lot do with that. I’m really excited about this development.

Strides have been made in food-allergy awareness. But where do you think more work is needed?

People need to be able to recognize food allergy symptoms, and not be afraid to use epinephrine. When I was working on Michigan’s stock epinephrine legislation, I would hear all these stories about people being so uncomfortable to use it [the auto-injector].

You were instrumental in getting Michigan to pass the law requiring schools to have epinephrine on hand. What was that experience like?

It was challenging. It was the first time I did anything with legislation, so it was definitely a teaching moment for me and other people in my group who were involved. We stood up and testified.

When you tell your story from an emotional standpoint and you let your guard down – it really helped for them to see that it was real. And we had to tell them that epinephrine is not going to hurt anyone.

When you’re not advocating or moderating online, what are you up to?

I volunteer in Evan’s kindergarten class as much as possible. He sits at the regular lunch table because he was being isolated at the peanut-free table. He’s at the end of the table, but they cover the table with paper every day. I like to be there in the lunchroom and make sure they’re on top of that.

What impact has your being involved with the NNMG had on your son with allergies?

I don’t think he really understood it too much in the beginning, but now that he’s in kindergarten, I think it really means a lot to him. He’s starting to see that he is a little different from other people.

It’s really special for him because he has friends that he’s known since he was 3 years old. He knows these are his buddies, and they have food allergies, too.

Find the No Nuts Moms Group here.

Honorees in The Allergy Advocates Series
Cathy Owens: The Nurse Who’s the Allergic Student’s Protector
Karen Harris: Food Allergy’s Educating Dynamo
Jenny Sprague: Courageous Woman who Unites Allergy Bloggers
Gina Mennett Lee: A Voice of Reason for Food Allergy at School, Daycare