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With food allergies, ‘constant vigilance’ and educating others are musts

One 13  U.S. children have food allergy. Charlie Havens 8 is one them.
Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media

One in 13 U.S. children have a food allergy. Charlie Havens, 8, is one of them. Jane Donahue/For Sun-Times Media

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Label this

Since it passed in 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that the labels of foods (including conventional foods, dietary supplements, infant formula and medical foods) containing the eight major food allergens note the allergen in plain language. These ingredients must be listed if present in any amount. However, the “advisory labeling,” which includes words like “may contain” or “may be processed in a facility,” is voluntary and optional for manufacturers. When in doubt, call the manufacturer to ask. Also, because ingredients can change without warning, it’s important to read the labels each time you make a food selection.

Updated: March 5, 2014 7:47PM

When Laura Havens sends 8-year-old Charlie off to Beaubien Elementary School, she’s not worrying about reading, writing or arithmetic. Instead, the Edison Park mom has greater concerns.

“Does he have his EpiPen, his inhaler, his medical alert bracelet? Does he understand how to stay safe? Will others around him know what to do in an emergency? This is my morning routine,” said Havens, 38.

Charlie has life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and sesame seeds. Making sure he’s safe, especially when he’s away from home, is a daily concern for Laura and her husband, Mike.

“Living with a food allergy is life-changing and requires constant vigilance,” Havens said. “We worry every day.”

They’re not alone.

One in 13 U.S. children suffers from food allergies, and the numbers are growing, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics. In fact, food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

“Food allergies are definitely on the rise; it’s not just that we are diagnosing them more,” said Dr. Joyce Rabbat, pediatric allergist at Loyola University Health System. “There are a lot of theories as to what is contributing to this, but no single answer. The likelier explanation is that there are multiple factors.”

Eight foods or food groups account for the serious allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, milk, eggs, fish and crustacean shellfish. With no cure for food allergies, the only way to prevent a reaction is to eliminate the food altogether.

“The key to prevention of [allergic] reactions is education,” said Rabbat. “The children need to be educated as to what foods do or do not contain the allergenic items. The adults caring for them — parents, baby-sitters, school officials and teachers — need to be educated as well and know the signs of an allergic reaction.”

One educational tool Rabbat suggests is Food Allergy Research and Education (, a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of the 15 million people with food allergies.

John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research and Education, said the lives of individuals with food allergies can depend on others understanding how to respond during an allergic reaction.

“It’s crucial that we educate caregivers, school staff, restaurant workers and others about the critical distinction that food allergies are potentially life-threatening — they’re not a lifestyle choice,” Lehr said.

Raising awareness and educating others is a mission for Havens. In 2012, she founded a Facebook group ( to help Chicago parents navigate the unique challenges that come with food allergies and the school system.

“I started realizing that there is one [school district] policy, but the individual schools have discretion on how they handle food allergies,” Havens said. “It was at that point that I knew I would need additional resources in the community to help guide me through the challenges.”

Advocating for Charlie — and all kids with food allergies — is one her plate each day.

“When you’re not living in the situation, it’s hard to understand that it isn’t a choice,” Havens said. “Everything you do is harder when you must consider food allergies. Vacations, eating out, parties, baby-sitters, play dates and sports are all considerably more difficult.”

Though it can be overwhelming, Havens keeps positive, and keeps talking.

“We have been really open with Charlie about his food allergies,” she said. “I think you have to be, because we need to trust that he really understands because he is not with us eight hours during the day. We try to raise awareness in his circle [too] because he needs to in order to protect himself.”

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