BY HOLLY GARDNER; PHOTOS BY HOLLY GARDNER
HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ON A FLIGHT WHERE PEANUTS COULD NOT BE SERVED AND YOU FIND OUT SOME CHILD ON THE PLANE HAS A PEANUT ALLERGY? IF YOU THINK WITHHOLDING A SIMPLE PACKAGE OF NUTS TO ALL PASSENGERS DUE TO ONE ALLERGIC CHILD ON THE PLANE IS AN OVERREACTION, THEN YOU ARE WRONG.
For years, our daughter, Charlotte, has been friends with Kendall Sears. Kendall can become gravely ill from something as simple as a kiss. Kendall has life-threatening food allergies and she carries an EpiPen with her at all times. An EpiPen contains the medication epinephrine, an essential tool for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis. During a severe allergic reaction, without the use of an EpiPen injection, a child can die before reaching the emergency room.
While we empathized with the Sears family, we did not fully understand their concerns and the impact it had on their lives. But this changed when our own baby boy started having rashes and skin conditions. We are a conscientious family, we shop, cook, eat healthy, use organic products, and try to give our children the bes . When he was only a few months old, our son started having “episodes” that we now realize were actually allergic reactions.
Exclusively breastfed, our baby boy James had never had anything other than mommy milk. My diet was not restricted at all, so I ate pecan pie and drank skim milk by the gallon – milk was actually one of my favorite beverages. We went out of our way to buy organic body wash and lotion, thinking we were giving our child the best. But we soon started to notice strange rashes. At first it was scaly spots, but then we found that he would have these strange bouts where his entire face would swell up with bumps, his eyes would swell shut, and he would make a wheezing sound. By the time our baby boy was five months old, we noticed it happening more regularly with no identifiable trigger.
We switched doctors and the new pediatrician recommended treating our baby’s skin with hydrocortisone. But the situation got worse . And worse in a very short time. We thought we were dealing with a severe case of cradle cap. We trimmed his nails and rubbed his head with a baby brush, but it wouldn’t relent. And then one day our baby James woke up from his nap with blood covering his crib and head. Blood was literally dripping down his face and soaked into his sheet. As I walked in the room I freaked out before I realized his “cradle cap” was so bad that the top and back of his head were literally peeling off in chunks . His face was covered in scales as well. Later that day, I gave him a bath and coated him with an organic lotion when I noticed his face getting rashy again. This time I thought to take a picture and showed it to our pediatrician the next day who immediately recommended that we test for food allergies . I was floored . How could a baby that has never eaten food have food allergies?
The next couple of months were a blur There were blood tests, allergist referrals, and lots and lots of learning to do. Our baby was diagnosed with a severe dairy allergy. I abruptly removed all dairy from my diet as well. We became more aware not only of the obvious foods (milk, ice cream) but of the products with dairy hidden in it as well – like that exclusive organic lotion I had been rubbing all over him!
Around the time we started to get a handle on baby James’ dairy allergy he had yet another severe reaction that almost warranted the use of an EpiPen. We were shocked and perplexed by what had happened because we were living dairy-free. I took him to the allergist again for treatment. The snapshot to the right was taken that afternoon before things got even worse for him. (This makes me so sad looking at it!)
Upon realizing our baby may have gotten a dab of peanut butter into his mouth accidentally, the allergist urged us to move forward with more testing. In my head, I was 100% positive that he didn’t have any nut problems because they hadn’t shown up on the blood test. There must have been some hidden dairy in the crackers I’d given him! But the skin prick testing proved otherwise – he was showing an allergic reaction to the major and minor dairy proteins as well as various tree nuts and peanuts.
And so we started a new phase of food-allergy life . He was still exclusively breastfed. I underwent weeks of a withdrawal diet, slowly removing and adding foods into my diet and logging every reaction – major and minor. This third round of testing provided evidence that he definitively had food allergies so we removed all peanuts and tree nuts from our diet and also made the decision to remove them from our home completely. We then slowly started introducing new foods, which is when we discovered he is also allergic to seeds. (Tahini = sesame seeds! I didn’t even realize that) We quickly adjusted to a new way of life. Grandparents and all other potential babysitters received training on the family allergy action plan that included administering an EpiPen and calling 911.
Now, a year later, our lives look radically different. We cook almost exclusively with fresh, organic ingredients and our little man has what is likely the most wholesome and healthy diet on the planet. We continue to consult with our amazing allergist and pediatrician and we have hired a nutritionist to review his nutritional intake, something we found to be incredibly helpful. We rarely ever eat out and, if we do, then it is only when our son isn’t with us. He is doing well and staying healthy but, since he is so young, he loves to put everything into his mouth. Plus, he can’t verbalize how he feels (although his face is pretty expressive). When we want to socialize, we invite friends over and ask them to leave their food and drinks at home. For his first Halloween with diagnosed food allergies, we made “safe” treats ahead of time and delivered them to our friends’ houses so he would feel included.
As educated and caring parents, we protect our children from germs; we cover our coughs, use hand wipes, use antibacterial soaps, and spray Lysol into the air religiously. Our reality is that something as simple as a kiss could cause a life-threatening emergency for our son. Mere molecules of healthy food could make our child sick or even worse.
What is sometimes difficult to understand is that ingestion is not the only hazard. The risk of cross-contact, the transfer of dangerous food proteins onto eating surfaces can be just as hazardous to some children with allergies. While you may not see milk and nut proteins, even tiny amounts can make those affected by food allergies deathly ill. Sadly, while our natural immunity is designed to protect us from many things, for children with life-threatening food allergies the natural protections from some food proteins are missing. I compare the food allergies our son has to be like exposing a normal, healthy child to poison. All it takes is the smallest amount to make him seriously ill. Unfortunately, his allergens are very common and so many can be hidden in many ingredients. Milk proteins are especially difficult to avoid, as they are often used in processed foods from flavored potato chips to deli meats and even parsley paste.
Everyone in our local grocery store knows my husband Chris by name, as our shopping trips now take three times as long since we have to read every food label. We have found that it is not uncommon for manufacturers to change their recipes without notice.
Since our son’s diagnosis, our shopping habits aren’t the only things that changed. We spend more time at home. We find more joy in just being together. We have a renewed love of cooking with wholesome, fresh ingredients. We give thanks for every day that we are healthy and for family members that are equally dedicated to keeping our son healthy.
After James’ diagnosis, we quickly learned that we had no idea how bad food allergies impact lives, but decided we wouldn’t let food allergies keep us from living. We just have to live differently, just like all food-allergy families.
A New Way of Life
During our food-allergy journey, we made the necessary commitment to change the way we deal with food. When even the smallest traces of food could make our son break out in hives and rashes, we would find a way to make his daily life easier to manage.
There were no ready solutions, no alternatives and, after much trial and error, we developed our own products that would organize our food-conscious lives and provide the needed safety net to our son. When we were looking for products to separate contaminated surfaces from “safe” surfaces, we came up empty-handed but found the spark to create the products we needed. Our conscious food interaction laid the foundation for our own line of products that we branded Safe & Happy Family™.
In addition to being husband and wife, the parents of two energetic children, scientists, artists, and lovers of the outdoors, we now have a shared mission in educating others about food allergies and encouraging people to be proactive about their health. We found a new calling.
In the summer of 2014, we began developing innovative products to make the lives of food-allergic families easier and a little more fun. As they say, “We believe that a safe family is a happy family!” Select products that we think will help eliminate cross-contact in food allergy homes can now be purchased on our company’s website http://safehappyfamily.com/.
If cooking surfaces, cutlery, or dishware come in contact with allergens, they must be thoroughly sanitized before being used by someone with food allergies. Using our designated dishes and utensils for only allergen-free foods will help avoid cross contact. We currently offer a snack platter, cutting boards, plates, and utensils – all with clear labeling for dedicated use with allergy-free foods only. Bag tags with customizable emergency information are also available and more products will be added to the line soon. All of the products come straight from our hearts. Our hope is that others will find them as fun and functional as we do and that it helps provide an added safety feature for your child.
We have simple guidelines for the development of our products. If a product is not good enough for us and our children, it is not good enough to sell. The products are being developed out of sheer necessity to overcome the dangers regular food items can bear for our food allergic son, James.
About Chris and Holly Gardner
The Gardners live on Panama City Beach with their two kids James (1½) and daughter Charlotte (7). Holly Gardner is a professional photographer and holds a MS in Engineering from The George Washington University. After spending half of her life in Panama City Beach and the other half in the Washington DC area, she returned to her Southern roots and followed her dream of pursuing photography full-time after the birth of Charlotte.
Chris has a degree from the University of South Florida and works as a fisheries biologist. He is currently completing graduate school at the University of Florida while working full-time.
The severity of living with food allergies is ongoing. It is something that the Gardner Family and many other food-allergy families like them will likely always face. Their son’s condition marked a life-altering event. But the challenges have made them inventive and, with their entrepreneurial spirit, the Gardners can now influence the lives of other families. Out of a necessity they created a line of products to keep their family safe and happy, and they see it as their greatest success that their products will help protect other families.
Turning the tables on Food Allergies
Safe & Happy Family™ – from health scare to business plan
Food allergies are not as uncommon as many think. According to the Gardners, “More than 15 children at Bay District’s Patronis Elementary School have allergies so severe that they are required to carry EpiPens with them at all times .” According to the FARE website (http://www.foodallergy.org/) there are 15 million Americans with food allergies and young children are affected the most. Surprisingly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the prevalence of food allergies and associated anaphylaxis appears to be on the rise. A study from 2013 shows that food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 in the U.S.
A child’s food allergy is something the entire family will have to live with in a constant effort to avoid allergens that are often “hidden” in processed foods . Reading labels and watching the child’s diet is a fulltime job in itself .The fear of the next allergic reaction is certain to affect all family members. The Gardners have found a way of not just dealing with their son’s food allergies but they have invented products that will make other parents’ lives easier.
While dealing with a life-threatening condition, the Gardners have turned the tables and started approaching the problem with entrepreneurial spirit. The idea of “Safe and Happy Family” was born. With a collection of specially designed and marked as “allergen free” kitchen supplies such as utensils, dishes, and cutting boards, they help create a safe-zone within a home. The products themselves are constant reminders in the household that will help build awareness of a child’s food allergy.
Safe and Happy Family is a family effort. Holly runs the technical/artistic side, dealing with the photography, website design, manufacturing, and public relations. Chris identifies problems, builds prototypes, and matches products to solve problems. As a quality assurance man, he makes sure anything sold meets his demanding personal requirements.
Their children’s safety has become the single most important thing in their lives. Chris states: “Our goals changed drastically when our son was diagnosed with severe milk and nut allergies. This actually put into perspective things that we take for granted — such as eating out, going to social gatherings, or even buying groceries. We soon became quickly focused on educating ourselves in how to keep our son safe and healthy. One of my personal goals has been to provide him with not only healthy food, but great tasting items as well. This has really challenged us to reach out past traditional recipes and get creative with unique ingredients. Along with that, educating ourselves and others as well as donating to food allergy research has been a top priority.”
And for Holly, it is not the first challenge she had to face in her life. “I have always felt like I was created to help others and, after my first husband passed away, I’ve felt the calling even more. I want to make a difference in others’ lives, whether it’s through timelessly documenting their most significant moments or by just generally bringing a little cheer. Most importantly, I want to be a good mother and provide for my children not only financially, but with my time and heart. I feel like my work goals all boil down to the same thing. In ten years, I see myself continuing to wear multiple hats and loving every minute of it!”
Another part of their business philosophy is in sharing a portion of their profits with the organization that has helped them, the non-profit Food Allergy Resources and Education (FARE) http://www.foodallergy .org/
More food allergy facts can be found here: http://www.foodallergy.org/
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