Category Archives: Food Allergy & Families

Disability Rights Attorney & Food Allergy Mom, Mary Vargas

mary-vargas

Hello Mary. It’s wonderful to interview you today. Can you please tell us how you became involved in disability law, especially as it relates to food allergies and anaphylaxis?

I’ve been a disability rights lawyer for almost two decades. I started my career at the National Association of the Deaf doing disability discrimination litigation. When my own child was diagnosed with food allergies and subsequently turned away from a summer camp because of his allergies, my worlds collided. I found myself in the uniquely familiar position of advocating for inclusion but this time I was advocating for my son. I realized that if the child of a disability rights lawyer was denied access because of food allergies, there was work to be done.

What food allergies does your family manage?

I have three boys and only my youngest has food allergies – peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.

What lawsuit(s) have you litigated that pertain to food allergies and anaphylaxis?

Stein & Vargas, LLP has a special interest in pursuing litigation that will create safe and equal access for people with food allergies. We’ve litigated a number of cases throughout the United States on behalf of people with food allergies who have experienced discrimination whether it be in employment, education, or access to programs and services. Among the complaints we have pending now are a complaint against Young Shakespeare Players East in which the United States Department of Justice has concluded that Young Shakespeare Players East discriminated against my 11 year old client on the basis of his food allergies and retaliated against my 13 year old client for advocating for her friend’s rights. We are also co-counseling on a case with Laurel Francoeur against Panera on behalf of a child who had an anaphylactic reaction after being served a grilled cheese sandwich that contained peanut butter despite notice that the sandwich was for a child with a peanut allergy.

From your experience as an attorney, is there anything that a food allergy family should be aware of or take action on to ensure the safety and inclusion of their child in school? 

The most important aspect of safety and inclusion at school for food allergic kids is the development of a strong and positive relationship between the school and the parents. The focus cannot be on highlighting where plans failed, but on building long term trust and commitment. Even the most knowledgeable and well-meaning schools will fall down sometimes.

You are a Co-Founder of  Allergy Law Project. How did that come into being?

Allergy Law Project was the brainchild of Laurel Francoeur who approached Homa Woodrum and I two years ago about the need for reliable legal information in the food allergy community. There is incredible power when parents of food allergic kids put their brains together for the good of the community.

I love the blog post called “A Seat at the Table – Bringing Allergy Friendly Food to Restaurants“. You said that’s the question you are asked the most. What can a family do, in the moment, if a restaurant forbids them to bring in outside food? Is it necessary to bring along the state law to reference or is there some other statement that can be used to allow outside food?

Generally, families can ask calmly and respectfully to speak with the manager. Explain to the manager that your party is looking forward to enjoying the food that the restaurant offers but your child cannot safely eat the food. If after calmly talking this through and explaining why it is necessary for your child to bring safe food in order for the rest of the dining part to eat at the restaurant the manager still refuses, you may need to go higher up the chain. You might send a politely worded letter to the restaurant owner to educate them about food allergies.

Many food allergy families are concerned about Donald Trump’s comments about “streamlining” the Department of Education and curbing the role of the Office of Civil Rights. What can food allergy families do to protect their child and do you think that is likely to occur?

I have grave concerns about the impact of the incoming administration on many aspects of the work we do. The Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Disability Rights Section all have a critical role in ensuring compliance with our federal rights. Significant cuts in staffing could jeopardize the ability of these agencies to safeguard rights and changes in philosophy could undermine enforcement actions throughout the United States. There is so much at risk and already resources are stretched tightly. I’m also concerned about the potential rollback of food safety regulations that has been threatened. My hope is that the allergy community has the potential to speak loudly and in concert to defend important rights.

If someone reading this feels they need legal advice pertaining to a disability law question, how can they contact you? Stein & Vargas, LLP’s website is www.steinvargas.com. Folks are welcome to contact me with questions through the website.

Thank you very much Mary!

Ms. Vargas is committed to ensuring full and equal access for all individuals. She has litigated cases pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act throughout the United States in federal and state courts.

Ms. Vargas also represents women who are denied access to reproductive care and coverage. She has successfully obtained full coverage of late term abortion claims through insurance appeals. She also speaks nationally on issues including women in law, movement building, discrimination, pain, food allergies and anaphylaxis, and reproductive rights. Ms. Vargas is a co-founder of and blogger for the Allergy Law Project.

Prior to joining Stein & Vargas, LLP, Ms. Vargas was a staff attorney with the National Association of the Deaf.  Ms. Vargas was a 1998 Skadden Fellow and a 1994 Truman Scholar. Ms. Vargas was the 2010 recipient of the Advocacy for People with Pain Award from the American Academy of Pain Management. She wrote for the American Bar Association, Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter.

Ms. Vargas obtained a B.S. in deaf education from the College of New Jersey, and a J.D. from the University of Connecticut, School of Law. While in law school, she was appointed to the Client Advocacy Board and served as student director of the Yale Law School, Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities Clinic.

Ms. Vargas is a member of the bars in Connecticut and Maryland.  She associates with local counsel around the country in bringing cases of special importance to individuals with disabilities.

AllergicChild.com & Food Allergy Mama, Kelly Rudnicki

Kelly Rudnicki

Kelly Rudnicki is the author of the The Food Allergy Mama’s Easy, Fast Family Meals, The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book,  and Vegan Baking Classics. She’s also the creator of the award-winning blog Food Allergy Mama. Her blog has twice been named Babble’s Top Food Blog and ranked #6 in Healthiest Eating. She has appeared on The Martha Stewart Show, Windy City Live, WGN News, ABC News as well as in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Parents, Parenting, Shape, Family Fun, Woman’s Day, and others.

As the mother of five young children, one of whom with severe food allergies, Kelly also spends much of her free time advocating for food allergy awareness and improving school nutrition. She volunteers and speaks on behalf of food allergy organizations such as FARE, and helped write the food allergy guidelines for the Chefs Move to Schools Chicago, an initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Go for the Gold campaign to promote higher standards for food, fitness and nutrition education. Kelly also serves as a Parent Ambassador for Healthy Child, Healthy World.

She lives in Southern California with her husband and five children.

Kelly, can you please tell us what food allergies you manage in your children and how you found out about them? My 10-year-old son John was diagnosed at age one with severe food allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, peas and legumes. The only allergy he outgrew was egg at age three after a successful food challenge confirmation. We found out about John’s allergy like many other parents of food allergic children, a scary reaction. John was nearly a year old and ate one of his first finger foods, a Gerber Veggie cheese wheel which actually contains very little veggies but is coated in cheese powder. He immediately broke out into hives on his face, started coughing and then vomiting. It was a horrifying experience.

Kelly Rudnicki cookbook

What was your inspiration in writing your newest cookbook, “The Food Allergy Mama’s Easy Fast Family Meals“? After the success of my first book The Food Allergy Mama’s Baking Book, many of my blog readers routinely wrote me asking for my favorite family meals that are fast and allergy-friendly. As a busy mom of five, they wanted to know how I get meals on the table day in and out. I realized that there was a real need to have a practical family meal cookbook that is no nonsense, easy to use and produces delicious recipes every time. The bonus of this book is that many non food allergy families love the book just as much!

What meal is your children’s favorite? My family loves pizza night!

Are there any budding cooks in your family? As a mother of four boys I feel it is equally as important to teach them how to cook as much as my daughter. It’s an important life skill that can easily be taught by mastering a few simple cooking techniques and recipes. Cooking is the epitome of inner creativity, and something that should be fun, approachable and not scary. When people say they don’t know how to cook it is usually because they made a recipe that failed them, not the other way around. It’s wonderful to teach our children to feed our bodies good food made from the heart. And in turn they will teach their own children the importance of family mealtime and cooking. The ripple effect is amazing.

With 5 kids, do you make safe meals that everyone can eat? Or do you ‘short order cook’ a safe meal and then a meal for everyone else? If I was a short order cook, I would lose my mind! It’s hard enough as it is to cook one meal on a busy weeknight! I choose to make recipes that aren’t fussy, complicated or require a ton of ingredients. They are crowd pleasers. However, one child absolutely dislikes the main dish I’ve made for dinner, oh well. They eat the sides and move on. Parents shouldn’t feel obligated to make everything perfect for their children, it’s really OK to serve one family meal and be done with it. If anything, it teaches children to “roll with it”.

Since Mother’s Day is this month, can you share with us any special celebrations that your family has for this occasion? I usually take the day to go for a run and reflect on being a mother and what it means to me. The day I became a mother I was forever changed. Having children forced me to get out of my comfort zone and challenge me to be the best person I could be. I wanted them to watch and learn from not only my successes but most importantly my mistakes. There is no greater reward in my life than my children. I also take the day to remember my own mother, who passed away 16 years ago. My heart broke the day she died, and I don’t think you ever fully recover from the death of your mother. But you do learn, grown and become a mirror of what she was to you.

What can you share with us about sending in safe school lunches – anything wonderful and new for kids tired of the same old thing in their lunch bag? I recently discovered the greatest thing about making safe lunches your child will actually eat and enjoy…have them either help or make their own! I admit I stumbled upon this concept out of part desperation, part selfishness. One day I was exhausted, running in a million directions and literally too busy to spend the extra few minutes to make lunches for my four school aged children. My kids were lounging around waiting for me to take them to school and I had an A-ha moment….have THEM make their own lunches. I had rules; make a sandwich or something with protein, a veggie and a fruit. Cracker and snacks were optional. It was a true epiphany! The kids took ownership in their meals, and were proud to make lunches THEY liked. And it was fun for them to be creative in what they packed every day. I do check the end result to make sure there isn’t just frosted flakes packed. But they’ve done a great job and I think they have really learned the value of making your own meals.

Thank you for including me!

Thank You Kelly and Happy Mother’s Day!

 

What’s Your Family Tree of Allergies?

When our son, Morgan, was first diagnosed with food allergies at 18 months old, we weren’t too surprised given the Family Tree of Allergies that exist in our family. Yet, I hear from some parents who have no one in their family with allergies, and can’t understand where their child’s food allergies come from. There are many more possible causes than just genetics for food allergies, which you can find on our website here.

The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) states that asthma and allergies affect 1 out of 4 Americans, or 60 million people. Further, they report that allergies have a genetic component. If only one parent has allergies of any type, chances are 1 in 3 that each child will have an allergy. If both parents have allergies, the chances increase to 7 in 10 that their children will have allergies. Dr. Scott Sicherer, in his book, “The Complete Peanut Allergy Handbook” also states that “there is a 7 percent risk, or about ten times higher risk than normal, for developing a peanut allergy if one sibling has a peanut allergy.”

Allergies can be passed from parent to child. Children may inherit the tendency to develop allergies if either parent or any family member suffers from eczema, asthma, or food allergies. The specific allergy is not inherited from the parents, merely the tendency to be allergic. If neither parent is allergic research suggests that there is still a 5-15% chance that the child will develop allergies.

Research has also shown the children who have a genetic predisposition to produce excess IgE are at least 8 times as likely to develop food allergy when delivered by cesarean section. My son wasn’t delivered by C section, but out of four grandparents, one had severe asthma and hayfever, one has cold urticaria and hayfever, one had shellfish allergy as a child and one had no allergies. That’s a lot of genetics to overcome!

Between my husband and I, my husband really doesn’t have any allergies to speak of other than an allergy to cats. Me however, that’s a different story! I’ve been recently diagnosed with a mast cell mediated disorder. In other words, I have an abundance of mast cells in my body, especially in my stomach. I also have multiple IgE food allergies, environmental allergies and cold urticaria. Our college age daughter also has these same issues, so sadly I’ve passed my genetics on to her.

There’s so much more that our family understands now about allergies in the environment, food allergies and cold hives – so I don’t blame myself for my kids getting all these allergic issues. I do hope that someday we’ll find a cure, or at least be able to mitigate the most serious of allergic reactions, anaphylaxis.

In the meantime, at least I know what it’s like to have allergies and I can help my kids to stay safe!