I am a mom of two wonderful children, one with a food allergy. My son Jaythan, who is 10 years old, was diagnosed with a life-threatening peanut allergy at just eight months of age. One thing my children love to do is to play in a park. However going to parks was always a big concern for our family because of the potential for peanut exposure.
To prevent our son from being accidentally exposed to his allergen while having fun, I’d wipe down playground equipment and clean the children’s hands after playing.
But in the back of my mind was always the nagging question: Is this enough? I also considered the lack of public awareness and lack of understanding of how dangerous food allergies can be.
When we would visit our local park, we would notice children eating food or find candy wrappers of snacks that contained peanuts in the playground area. This heightened worry about my child encountering food residue on the playground equipment.
Children like Jaythan need to avoid their allergens, including cross-contact with even tiny amounts of food proteins. After such an accidental exposure, if they put a finger or in mouth or nose – or rub an eye, they risk having the severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis.
When we’d see groups of families entering the playground carrying restaurant food and children from birthday parties crossing over from the park with goodie bags, we’d exit the park. At those times, leaving was the better option to keep Jaythan safe.
Our son has had food allergy reactions with hives all over face and chest, including from exposures at the park. At such times, we monitor him, ready to use his epinephrine ready in case a reaction were to escalate to anaphylaxis.
Park Sign Inspiration
In September 2019, I came across a couple of inspiring Facebook posts in food allergy support groups from people in other parts of the United States. Parents wrote about how they had advocated and successfully managed to get food allergy awareness signs put up in their city parks.
I came upon articles about how Fair Lawn, New Jersey and some towns on New York’s Long Island had set up food allergy signs at their local parks. It was wonderful to read about community leaders and food allergy parents proactively coming together and ensuring that parks remained a fun and inclusive environment for all children.
Teal is the color of food allergy awareness. These stories from other communities sparked the food allergy teal light in me – motivating me to reach out to our local Parks and Recreation Department in Harlingen in southern Texas. It became my mission to get signage posted to bring awareness and educate the public about the dangers of food allergies within our city.
While you can’t guarantee a “safe” environment, you can certainly reduce risks. I firmly believe that food allergy children deserve to be able to fully enjoy themselves in a park that’s a less risky environment. Since feeling a part of their community is essential for our food-allergic children, I also wanted to advocate to make food allergy inclusion a common practice. As well, I recognized that our playground would benefit from having Spanish signs installed, to better communicate with our city’s bilingual families.
A Prototype and Action
On October 11, 2019, I spoke with Harlingen Parks and Recreations Director Javier Mendez. I voiced my concerns for the safety of food allergic children in our community who visit our public parks. I was delighted to hear that the director agreed with the idea and recommendation for the food allergy signs in our city.
When I followed up six days later, Mr. Mendez told me the signs had been approved! I’d provided him with a photo of a prototype sign and asked that the same wording be used on the Spanish signs. He agreed.
Things moved quickly. On December 13, the city of Harlingen had installed 18 food allergy signs along with the bilingual signs at our city parks. They tell people that 1 in 13 children have food allergies and that they can help by following these simple steps in their park:
1. Please eat at a designated picnic area to avoid contamination of playground equipment.
2. Please do not eat in the playground area.
3. Please do not offer food to other children without their caregiver’s permission.
4. Please wash hands or use a wet wipe after eating.
Spreading the Spark
I’m told these are the first such playground signs in Texas. Mr. Mendez has said they cost $375, which is a small price for the considerable peace of mind and feeling of belonging they bring to food allergy families.
Our family is very grateful to the City of Harlingen and the Parks and Recreations Director for helping our children with food allergies to feel safer, supported and valued as part of our community.
I am hopeful that our community families will open their hearts and be conscious entering our playgrounds. Jaythan is beyond gratified for this big triumph for our food allergic community. It’s inspiring to have such a proactive city that helps spread food allergy public awareness and strive to remove barriers within the community. For 2020, it is my hope to inspire other parents to do the same and be the “tealing spark” in their communities.
Judith Moreno is a food allergy mom and advocate in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Her Facebook page is Tealing RGV – Food Allergy Awareness.
Editor’s Note: Allergic Living also wants to acknowledge the lobbying efforts of another Harlingen family. Kayla McFarland and her son Henry, 8, separately lobbied the city for allergy-aware signs, and spoke at city council. The parks department says it applauds both families for their advocacy on such an important inclusion issue.
Food Allergy Mom Turns Parks Advocate – to Help Prevent Allergic Reactions
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Free Educational Posters for Food Allergy Awareness