Hello Allergic Living readers! It is with great honour that I take on the leadership of Food Allergy Canada, following 14 years of dedicated efforts from my predecessor Laurie Harada. My motivation to work on behalf of the over 2.6 million Canadians living with food allergies is driven by both my own family experience and my exposure to Food Allergy Canada.
Like Laurie before me, I come to the position of Executive Director with lived experience of food allergies. I am a mother of three teenagers, two of whom have multiple food allergies. They also happen to be twins. They are members of the Sabrina’s Law generation, landmark legislation in Ontario that protects students at risk of anaphylaxis.
My twins started Grade 1 in 2006, the year Sabrina’s Law was enacted. This legislation gave me the platform to have a productive, well-received conversation with their school, leading to an agreement on the anaphylaxis plan that would help keep them safe. At that time, I did not know the critical advocacy role Food Allergy Canada (then Anaphylaxis Canada) played in achieving the legislation, I was just grateful as a parent that it existed.
Our family’s journey with food allergies has not always been as smooth as that transition. In the twins’ early life, after some signs that potentially allergenic foods were creating mild reactions, I dutifully followed the medical community’s direction at the time and avoided further exposure to these foods until the age of 3, when the immune system was considered more fully developed.
Unfortunately, re-introduction of these foods resulted in a severe anaphylactic reaction, an epinephrine injection, and an ambulance trip to the emergency department for one of my sons. This experience gave my husband and I an early lesson in the importance of early administration of epinephrine.
So much has changed with the food allergy landscape since that time and much more is understood medically. The potential to prevent peanut allergies in some infants through early introduction is exciting. While I wish that knowledge had been available when my sons were infants, I recognize the importance of research in the advancement of care. I am encouraged that more research is happening now than it did 10 years ago. Insights will emerge that have the potential to change the way we live with food allergies in the future.
When I first got involved with Food Allergy Canada, by joining its board in 2014, I did not fully appreciate the breadth of the responsibility the organization assumed for helping Canadians live well with food allergies. It is a lean, passionate team, who took a leadership role in successful advocacy efforts like Sabrina’s Law and food labeling legislation, who provide medically reviewed information and educational tools to thousands of Canadians, and is the source of balanced perspectives in the media to build understanding of food allergy. On the board, I saw firsthand the mighty impact Food Allergy Canada has on our community. It inspired me to do more.
I am energized to take on the role of executive director, and most fortunate to be joining a fantastic team. Together, we have crystallized several areas of focus for the future:
- Continue supporting individuals and families to navigate life with food allergies right from diagnosis with useful, medically reviewed information, tools and programming – like our award winning Allergy Aware courses and ongoing webinar series.
- Helping young adults transition to independent living through the establishment of good habits, a time of potentially higher risk as they learn to manage their allergies in new environments.
- Working with the food-service sector in Canada to build their understanding of food allergies and promote universally required training and processes to manage food allergens.
- Advocating for improved labeling practices specifically clarity and consistency in the use of “may contain” statements. Work in this area is just beginning; it is a complex issue and will take time to create change. Although it took several years of advocacy to get the priority allergens clearly labelled on products, we’re hopeful the changes to the “may contain” statements will be quicker.
- Collaborating with the research community to help facilitate the translation of research insights into the “so what?” for our community.
I want to again thank Laurie for her leadership. I also want to acknowledge the commitment of our community, not only in advocating for their own families, but for others as well. I saw this time and again in my previous role. I am counting on this passion and collaboration as we continue the work to help us all live more confidently with food allergies.
Jennifer Gerdts is the Executive Director of Food Allergy Canada. Visit Foodallergycanada.ca.