Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Why I Really Don't Love Food at Mass

I've been hesitant to write this post.  It's been bouncing around in my head for a couple of months... and yet... I've read enough comboxes online to know where it can go.  It touches on two subjects that seem to arouse defensive emotions.  It can cause people to say "not my problem" when talking about situations that could mean the difference between life and death for a young child.  And it's a subject I've been turning over and over in my head for the last year and a half.

As you know if you're a regular blog reader, we have food allergies in the house.  In some ways we have been very blessed because I've never needed to use the epi-pens that I carry around in my purse.  Bendaryl, in various forms, is scattered around the house, in my purse, and even in the car.  I'm vigilant... pretty much all the time.  And so far we have been very, very fortunate.

All of my kids have food allergies.  I've spent this pregnancy joking with Paul about what he thinks the odds are that this next one won't.  Patch's doctor uses words like "strong genetic predisposition" when he talks about our kids and I guess he's right. Sometimes I just wish that if this baby does have an allergy that it's either dairy or wheat.  I'd rather not add another allergy restriction into the cooking mix. I've just about mastered avoiding gluten and casein.  I'd rather not add nuts or eggs.

When I first began reading about allergies I found that the general public reaction to children having allergies and any accommodations that may exist to protect them from those allergies is that it's the child and their parent's problem and that it isn't anyone else's concern.  The child needs to "learn how to deal with it."  What are you going to do "wrap them in bubble wrap?"  We wouldn't want anyone to infringe on our right to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wherever we wish to eat it, would we?

I couldn't quite buy into that, even before I knew that we had a single food allergy in our house.  "It's not my problem!" has never struck me as particularly kind of Christ-like, especially when talking about life and death issues with children.  And I'll admit that when hearing about other parents reactions to kids with allergies in their classes I became more and more grateful that we'd be homeschooling.

The thing is those parents don't want their kids allergies to effect anyone else... but they also want to keep their kids alive. And they know how messy kids can be when they're eating and how dangerous that could be to their child.

I can appreciate wanting to send a PB&J to school with your child.  It's easy.  In our house almost all the baked goods do contain a nut flour of some sort.  My kids love peanut butter.  And when you cut out gluten many of the replacements involve almond or coconut.  But that means that when we go out, say to our favorite kids museum, I take the Clorox wipes that they've provided and wipe every single thing we've touched down.  I use our wipes to scrub everyone clean.  Am I hyper sensitive to the issue? Probably.  But more and more kids seem to have allergies these days and if, by cleaning up after my kids I can help prevent a problem, I'm totally on board with doing a little bit extra to avoid someone else getting hurt.

That's easy enough to do though, since it's a rare situation.  Let's say they were in school and there was a child in one of their classes who was deathly allergic to nuts, what would I do then?  I'd use a lot more rice flour. I can't imagine putting any child at risk just because my kids really like peanut butter and jelly (which they do) or because it would be easier for me to use almond meal, which is part of so many of my favorite recipes.

"What will you do when you go out?" I once heard in a conversation on the topic.  "You can't kick allergens out of every place!"

That's true.  But I've never had anyone try to force milk or wheat on us in the grocery store or a museum or at the zoo. In fact there's only one place where it becomes a problem.


I know, I know, this post is a double whammy that's likely to say things that people don't want to hear.

The only place where I really worry about allergens, the only place where I really worry that I might have to use the Benadryl/Epi-pen/Inhaler that I carry in my purse is at Mass, or that we're about to start a two week spiral of horror, is every single Sunday when we go to church.  I know when we go to Mass there will be kids with containers of cereal and crackers racing here and there.

There's a good chance that while I'm explaining to my kids that we don't run around even in the narthex, that an adorable toddler is going to toddle over, hands full of snacks.  There's a good chance that they'll drop the snack right in front of Mae (it's happened), or worse, that a parent will encourage them to share the snacks.

So Mass is the time when I try to wrangle the toddlers, while battling pregnancy faintness and nausea, and while also keeping them from eating anything that anyone else has dropped in front of them.

Do I wish, deep down in my heart of hearts, that people wouldn't bring food to Mass?  Yes.  Do I understand why they do?  Yes.  I get it. It makes Mass easier.  It keeps little mouths quiet chewing and not talking.

As I write this, I remind myself that I'm very, very fortunate.  We've never needed to epi-pen.  I pray we never will.  The most likely thing that will happen is that I'll have a kid who's very sick for about two weeks... a kid who loses her words and cries all night because she's in pain from a teeny tiny cracker.  It isn't the worst case scenario.  And from what the world has told me, even other Catholic parents when I've seen the topic come up online, it's no one's problem but my family's.  Which is exactly how I treat the situation.  All day, every day, I'm protecting them from their allergens, making sure that they aren't allergic to whatever goes into their mouths.

Yet I can't help but hope that if you do have a little one and you do use treats as a reward to help them through Mass, maybe think twice about letting them run around dropping them, or offering them to other little ones.  It's such a little thing that I'm sure it never enters the mind of any of the family's who I know who do it, they're in the same boat, just trying to get through Mass with little ones.

As Patch gets older I imagine he'll become more and more suspicious of foods, just like his biggest sister is... but with Mae I can only hope that that is someday the case.  I hope that someday she'll be able to realize that her favorite foods need to be avoided because they make her sick.  Either way, for the time being and into the foreseeable future, it's my job to make sure it doesn't happen... but do I wish that there was a little more compassion and a little less "it's not my problem" in the discussion about allergies... because while the risks can't be eliminated in the world we live in,  little bit of care and compassion for others can make the world a much, much safer place for some of the littlest ones among us.

Sometimes it feels like we get so caught up in our rights to do a thing that we lose our compassion a bit... For some children, unfortunately, the cost of exercising those "rights" can be far to high.


  1. We do have snacks at Mass, but not to keep my children quiet (although sometimes it does). It's because HB has been my long time failure to thrive case. And he barely asks to eat anything still at age 4. I offer him breakfast, but sometimes he just doesn't eat it. And around the time Mass starts his behavior goes nutty because he is hungry he just won't admit it. His nutritionist has basically told me to feed him when he's hungry. This isn't one of those kind of cases where he can make an hour, which some people talk about. My child has a medical condition. He needs to eat just like a diabetic would. He is underweight and it's difficult for him to gain a reasonable amount.

    But I get that other people are contending with different medical issues. Which is why I don't wear perfume to Mass or pick peanut butter related food items. We also don't offer food without asking the parents first. We pick foods that are easy to quickly pick up should they drop.

    You're right at some point one has to be courteous.

  2. *sigh*

    See, I completely understand where you're coming from on this. After all, who wants kids to go through the awful reactions that they can get to these allergens?

    On the other hand, I wonder at what point someone who doesn't have to deal with these issues can reasonably draw the line.

    I know two families in which at least one or two people have serious allergies; one of these families also has an autistic child with poor impulse control when it comes to such things. (I'm sure you're familiar with that. :p ) The family also indicates that at least one member has severe allergic reactions (asthma-related) to any kind of fragrance, chemical, and so on, in addition to wheat and dairy.

    I honestly don't know what the solution is. I don't think it's reasonable for them to expect me to never use a scented product of any kind (beauty, cleaning, or otherwise). I mean, according to them, even diluted white vinegar or essential oils cause reactions! (And yes, I do realize this is an extreme case.)

    Likewise, if I were sending my kids to school, I could understand not sending them with peanut butter sandwiches, but where do I draw the line? Should their meals be gluten, dairy, egg, and all-other-types-of-nut -free, too? Wiping down a table after the kid eats something at a museum or other public place does seem both easy and reasonable.

    I'm really not giving you a hard time here, Cam. :) I just don't know at what point my responsibility ends and someone else's begins...

    Of course, one obvious solution that I will implement is that my kids will be taught not to offer other kids food unless they (or I) ask a parent first. That, at least, is easy! As for food at Mass, while I'm not a fan of it for a whole host of reasons, I do like my mother-in-law's solution to it which prevents any "sharing," too: cheerios only, and one at a time inserted directly into the kid's mouth!

  3. I personally think that one of the reasons people struggle so much with public responsibility regarding allergies and food sensitivities is how new it all is. I am about your age and when I was growing up, I do not really recall anyone having such dietary problems. I think I may have known one person who was allergic to strawberries. Now, I see kids everywhere with these problems. As these problems become more prevalent, it is likely that society and people will figure out how to balance public and personal responsibility (I hope). Like a pp said, it can be hard to know where to draw the line. Should schools ban peanuts? Keep allergic kids separate during lunch (which is sad)? What about kids who are fine with peanuts but allergic to another common food? The whole debate honestly raises in my mind serious questions about what is causing all this. GMO, pesticides, etc, there are so many potential dangers in our food supply. I wish food regulators would spend less time worrying about the almighty dollar and doing more to protect the quality of our food...

  4. I really don't have very many solid ideas on where lines should be drawn either (it's one of the reasons I'm glad that we won't deal with it in school). I would probably lean towards a case by case basis based on severity... after all, far less dairy and wheat allergies do cause anaphylaxis, whereas we hear about nut allergies going that way more frequently. I wouldn't expect people not to have dairy or wheat around my kids, my main concern is having kids run around with it offering them and dropping it right in front of them (sitting down would 100% solve the problem in our case). I definitely agree it's not a cut and dry or easy solution. And I also definitely wonder about the increase. I have mild food allergies... which is why they say it's "genetic" but it's nothing compared to the severity my kids deal with! I wish GMO labeling was required (or that we'd banned the problem all together like other countries are doing!)... because I can't help but wonder if tampering with our food supply in that way is playing a role.

  5. I more fall in the personal responsibility camp. Cigarette smoke can cause me to have a severe asthma attack and possibly die, but I don't think that should be a reason smoking shouldn't be allowed. (Trees can do the same things, but I also don't think all trees should be banned.)

  6. I think the issue of personal responsibility is a bit different when you're talking about small children. I have never heard of foods (or anything) being banned because an adult had an allergy to something. I don't think it's excessive to ask, in special situations, that a child be protected from a substance that could kill them. Also I think the likelihood of real danger being taken into account. Paul and I both have asthma and all three of the kids have had breathing problems in reaction to allergens in the air... but the likelihood of one of those becoming fatal when our inhalers are present is far lower than the likelihood of a child with a severe peanut allergy dying from exposure.

    Again, I've said above that I'm not exactly clear on where the lines should be drawn, but I think that arguing personal responsibility with very young children doesn't quite work. Yes, their parents and caregivers are going to do everything they can to protect them, but sometimes that means not having them around something that could kill them.

    And there are limits on where people can use certain harmful substances. You mentioned smoking, but obviously there are many places that people can't smoke. The restrictions I've heard suggested are far less than those imposed on smokers in the US.

  7. I guess I'm surprised that snacks are allowed in Mass at all from a reverence standpoint, let alone an allergies issue. I am Baptist, and any church I have ever gone to has strongly discouraged eating or drinking in the sanctuary because it is seen as irreverent, and I generally think that Baptists are much less particular about service form or formality. But eating or drinking will get you a bunch of glares, and a please refrain public service announcement from the pastor next week. If you are someone who can't make it through service without a snack, then you need to step outside. It is also common in Baptist churches to have nursery available for kids three and under for the whole service, and a children's version of the sermon for the older kids just during that part (our services are usually two to two and a half hours, so a challenge for many littles). The churches I have gone to have red allergy alert wristbands for kids with any allergy issues, and if an allergy child is present the rule is no food or drink for any child except water. The larger churches I've attended usually just have a universal policy of no snacks for kids unless given by parents in a separate eating area so allergy kids won't have to be identified. This extends to bottles for babies, and a separate nursing room with a TV sermon feed for moms. Guess I has assumed this sort of thing was normal in churches to avoid liability issues, and not make having kids with allergies an impediment to families being able to worship.

  8. As I recall, Paul writes about an early Church food issue. He says that eating meat that was slaughtered as a sacrifice to idols will not harm a Christian. He also says that if among their fellow Christians are those who are weaker and for whom such meat causes them to stumble in their faith, that for the sake of the weaker, all should abstain from eating meat sacrificed to idols.

    I see the allergies in the same light. To refrain from heavy perfumes, to limit snacks to avoid common allergens, to recognize that we ARE responsible for our weaker brothers. This is important.

  9. Hi Anonymous,

    I think part of the reason it's more of an issue for us is that we spend almost all our time in the narthex (basically the hallway just outside the main part of the Church where Mass is going on). There are speakers so we can hear and we can see through big glass doors, but it definitely can be way less formal out there depending on the parents. We try to sit together and keep the kids quiet and get them ready for being big enough to be in there (mostly just because Mae squeals when we go in, which is why we're out there). However I do know that there's a pretty passionate divide on snacks in Mass. Some people, like us, do tend to think of them as a no no, whereas others think they're great and I've never heard anyone at anyplace we've gone say anything official one way or another.

    It would be really, really nice if there was an eating/nursing area! At one parish we went to there was a little room for nursing, but most places haven't had the space.

  10. We had some kids growing up who were part of certain religions (yes, not potentially deadly) and couldn't eat certain foods. They just didn't eat the foods they weren't allowed to eat. At some point, children have to learn that they can't eat certain things, and shielding them from that responsibility doesn't help with that end.

    1. You can teach that too an autistic child until you are blue in the face. They will understand but they may not ever able to consistently control their impulses. You can't count on it, you have to either count on others or never leave the house. We have to all take some responsibility for each other. If we can't do that at mass then really, I give up.

  11. I do think that having snacks IN THE PEWS is irreverent, and shouldn't be tolerated. Beyond reverence, I don't have kids with allergies, but oh how gross it is to come across someone's leftovers and watch them being stuffed by Baby into his mouth, only to dissolve into a nasty smoosh that you can't completely retrieve, and then have your child dissolve into a mess of tears because you're wrestling a hard-earned morsel from his mouth in the middle of Mass!

    I draw the line at the pews. Most cry rooms are a deplorable free-for-all anyway, but at least they are separate rooms from where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is taking place.

    Just my unabashed two cents. :-) TB

  12. That is what we all hope for Kim. But with tiny kids (what I'm talking about here) or kids with disabilities (also at issue here) that's not always a possibility. As I've said, I pray that Mae will be able to someday have the self control to not eat the foods she loves. As an autistic three year old she's not there. I have no idea if she ever will be. I pray she does so she doesn't damage her body, so I don't have to sit the ER with her again... but do I know that that day will come? So yes, I do pray that she learns what she can and can't have. But can I count on that? Absolutely not. And I don't think it's too much to ask that kids aren't coming up shoving those foods in her face at Mass (the only place where it has happened.).

    As a general rule, even pre-allergies I wasn't a fan of food at Mass (for the reasons TB mentions above). I've always been the "you can wait for an hour kid" type of parent. However I think we have a major, major problem when we start thinking that our personal rights to have whatever we want whenever we want should overshadow the safety of a child.

  13. Thank you for this post Cam! It really enlightened me about the severity of allergies. I do feed my son Cheerios at Mass--but I feed him each individual Cheerio one by one by hand so that he won't make a mess or drop any Cheerios. After reading your post, I will be extra careful about feeding him at Mass and keeping him clean. I wrote up a post in regards to food at Mass also. Just my thoughts! God Bless you and your family!

  14. I guess because Catholic churches don't have baby nursery allergies are an issue that is easier to avoid thinking about. I commented before about all the Baptist churches I have gone to having allergy policies, but they also all have nurseries. When you agree to watch children without parents in the room you accept a level of legal liability. So most churches do at least basic criminal background checks on the volunteer nursery workers, have policies about two people to take kids to the bathroom, etc. The minimum for allergy safety is red wristbands to identify allergy kids and no snacks in their room, but most churches simply don't have snacks period (or very low allergen snacks like Kix) so allergy kids won't feel singled out, and no danger from a visitor not knowing the band system, etc. Then that starts the whole church thinking about how to be more accommodating in general, which usually leads to no food in the halls or cry room as well, since its not fair for only the nursery to be safe. And little things, like hooks for diaper bags in the nursery and halls six feet high so that its not easy for littles to raid someone else's stash of Cheerios or sippy cup of milk. Space is also not usually a concern at least in Baptist churches, since Sunday school before church is a standard thing, so churches are built with classroom space for this that can be repurposed during service as cry rooms and nursery, and few Baptist churches are built without a full kitchen (pot luck suppers are a big thing) that serves as the food area. Sorry to always comment as anonymous, my job requires no internet presence.

  15. I agree, it's a fine line. I'm not a fan of food in church mostly because of the mess factor. I've seen a mom in front of me, like a commenter said, feeding a child one at a time cheerios only for the child to make a sudden hand movement and the cheerios were EVERYWHERE. During the homily. Our Narthex is not conducive to having more than a few people out there at a time, so a quiet child, I could understand having a few Cherrios in the pew and because we have a beautiful, very old, Spanish-style brick church, there is no cry-room. So, yeah, mess (my sons got under the pew and picked them some miracle we had an old ziploc in our mass bag with their children's missals). We've run into the allergy conundrum a lot in public school more often in the special needs classroom setting. When Shelby was in kindergarten, another mother (and her class has only children with autism in it) said her son needed certain scents to relax him. She at first suggested burning candles with the scents which is in violation of the fire code so, yeah, didn't happen. Then she wanted scent sticks...which were tried up until another child in the classroom had a severe reaction. This mom's reaction was for the kid with the reaction to be given meds so her kid could continue getting his "relaxing scents." She was actually completely unconcerned about this other child screaming that her child's right to an education was being compromised because of the stupid scent sticks. What about the child with the allergy's right to an education? Clearly this was a time that she needed to work with ABA and OT to find another solution but it all gets really emotional in the autism/special needs world because we ADVOCATE! to no end. There was another case in a neighboring district where the parents demanded a therapy dog be used in the classroom but the dog they had trained was not hypo-allergenic. In fact, it was a high shedding breed. Not a poodle or golden doodle or something like that. The teacher in the classroom was the one with the allergy and I was in shock that so many hateful people said the teacher needed to be fired or said things like "just take a benadryl and get over yourself lady." Again, accommodating the child's need could have been done with another breed of dog (which was available fyi) but the family dug in their heels because they wanted this high shedding breed! On the flip side, we went to a birthday party where there had been all kinds of drama because one parent demanded that ALL the food for everyone be GFSFCF because her child (a guest at the party) was on that diet. The host family had graciously offered to have a special cupcake made for this child and special food for him only but it would be pretty expensive to have all that food for so many people. The parent of the GFSFCF child said that wasn't good enough because her child would know his food was different and feel singled out. So, yeah, it comes from people on all sides being unreasonable. We don't have food allergies here but we do have a child with severe asthma who is reactive to smoke. And that means even third hand smoke (the smoke you smell on someone's clothes). He knows not to got into someone's home if anyone who lives there smokes (even if they smoke outside only) but it gets more complicated with family. His uncle smokes like a chimney and when we're at the home of a non-smoking relative, it's hard for him to remember he can't sit next to or even hug his uncle (we took EMS to the ER one time for a hug!). As he gets older, I'm sure it will be easier for him to do what he needs to do but in the mean time...ay, yi, yi!

  16. Scents are so hard! Mae flipped out when one of her first therapists showed up smelling heavily of perfume and smoke... she has had breathing problems with smoke in the past and apparently that one time put her off the therapist every session afterwards and she would refuse to have anything to do with her. I was so thankful when the center made a quick scent after realizing that it just wasn't working out!

    It's so hard to imagine the dog or candle thing (although at the same time I can totally see it happening). And so hard to imagine telling a teacher to take benadryl! Maybe it's because I take it so much, but you'd think they wouldn't want someone even a tiny bit impaired (by the sleepiness)to be in charge of a room of kids!

    The smoke thing is so hard! When Sadie was tiny I thought she was being dramatic when she'd start coughing whenever she was near someone who smelled at all like smoke... it took me a long time to realize it was a real reaction!

    On the dog note, a center (who donates dogs to families) trains hypoallergenic autism assistance dogs. I'm hoping to apply for one as soon as we have our own place! Mae is so calm around animals that I'm really hoping we can make it to the top of the list!

  17. My older dd is 19. She has a peanut allergy. Back when she was a preschooler; peanut butter had not yet taken on a negative quality. PB sandwiches were a staple at mom and baby gatherings. People didn't understand about double dipping or cross contamination in margerine/butter or jam and PB. I carried an epi pen and was vigilant and we had no problems but there was the whole resentment factor on the part of others. Now if that's present; you don't hear about it. Our biggest irritation over the years was the label "may contain" which companies put on products to cover themselves. It is nice now that there are so many "peanut free" labels as well as GFCF etc. (although we never did that) And as for the past when kids supposedly never had many allergies; I don't know if anyone has ever done a study but my dh didn't know he was allergic to a lot of things; he just thought it was normal to walk around with a headache after some meals or a sleepy stoned feeling so he had to lie down. So yeah; I think there were a lot more allergic kids in the past then people thought.

  18. I don't like food at mass my kids don't have allergies or disability but I could just imagine going to mass and my kid eating someone leftovers or someone Sharing and it leading to the ER luckily in mexico no food is allowed at mass no exceptions I have been to mass in the basilica of Guadalupe and seen my fellow Americans coming to visit with snacks in hand be verbally rebuffed I think food at mass is cultural america is laid back and they kind of allow whatever but Americans have more allergies than other countries so as a public safety issue I think measures should be taken to safeguard allergic kids in public

  19. You are not alone. My adult daughter has a son with the same issues. She lives in dread and never leaves home without her Benadryl and epi-pen. I have a 14 year old with autism as well, so I know how you feel. It was a bummer to tell people who offered him food at Church, "no". We never had to deal with life threatening issues like you or my daughter. This is a good issue to raise.


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