Living with Food Allergies

Just about a month ago, one of my family’s favorite restaurants, Acapulcos Family Restaurant in Needham, MA, closed its doors for good. Now, in the grand scheme of things, a restaurant closing is not a major event, but this restaurant represented much more than a nice family restaurant.

We are a family that has multiple people with life threatening food allergies. Our child was first diagnosed with a severe egg allergy at the age of nine months. As new parents, this news was debilitating and came on the heels of other medical challenges that seemed quite large at the time.

Food allergies have a way of turning a person and family’s world upside down. So much of our lives revolve around food, truthfully almost everything in life revolves around food, and at that moment we were left to wonder how we would feed our child that could not eat anything that had an egg in it or came in contact with an egg. Food is simply central to life and we knew that this would impact family and friend gatherings and holiday celebrations, would make it more difficult to just run errands on a Sunday, and would require us to carry a pantry of safe food with us where ever we went on a daily basis.

Sometimes you simply do not want to make dinner or bring a snack filled bag with you. This is where Acapulcos comes in. Acapulcos was the first restaurant that we found where we felt safe feeding our child. All of a sudden the world did not seem so hard and there was hope that we could regain some sense of everyday normalcy. It allowed us to have dinner out with friends without the need to go through every menu item with a server to determine what was safe and meant we did not need to spend time talking to restaurant managers about the way they prepared food in their kitchen.

So, when Acapulcos closed it caused me to reflect on the incredible progress that has been made over the past decade when it comes to food allergy awareness and education. Food allergies continue to grow, and it is estimated that one in thirteen children have food allergies. We have seen an improvement in food labeling on packages, awareness in restaurants, and new rules at schools.

Like many schools, Brimmer does more to keep children safe than most schools. As a parent of a child with food allergies and the spouse to a person with food allergies, I am constantly looking at food in a different way than most. While most people may gloss over the ingredients on a menu, I digest every word. This is one of the reasons I continue to be impressed with the lengths Brimmer and May Dining Services goes to during every meal it serves.

In addition to the incredible food they prepare each day, they go to great lengths to make meals accessible to community members. A quick glance at the labeling at lunch will show the ingredients that go into the meals, information on how they are prepared, and labels with major food allergens. Children and adults can quickly identify which options are safe for them to eat and our dining staff helps students navigate the options. On any given day, you may find a main dish prepared three to four different ways to try and accommodate the various food allergies and sensitivities that exist in the community.

Meals can be incredibly stressful for a person and family living with food allergies and it is important to celebrate those that are doing their best to make food accessible to people. While my family lost one of its go to places to eat, I’m proud to work at an organization that goes the lengths it does to make meals easier for those with food allergies.


Mindfulness: The benefits and alternative ways to connect

It has not been due to a lack of effort, but I have never been able to get into yoga. Hearing about all the positives that are associated with it, both of mind and body, I was eager to try it. After a 10-week session a number of years ago, I enjoyed the physical aspect of yoga, but was never able to connect effectively with the mindfulness piece.

Over the last 5-7 years, the efforts to improve wellness programs and include mindfulness exercises has been a national trend in schools. At Brimmer, we continue to evaluate our programming, tweak existing options, and provide new opportunities. This has included inviting Will Slotnick from the Wellness Collaborative to talk with students about managing stress and anxiety and the risks involved in using alcohol, drugs, and, more recently, e-cigarettes. Slotnick addresses the subject from the perspective of managing stress and incorporates meditation and mindfulness into the program. After sessions, students report feeling more connected to their thoughts and feeling more relaxed. In addition to being armed with important information, they can physically be seen carrying their shoulders lower as much of the stress has melted away during the sessions.

In a 2011 article (full publication can be found here)from the American Psychological Association journal, Psychotherapy, Dr. Daphne Davis and Dr. Jeffrey Hayes share “empirically supported benefits of mindfulness.” The list of benefits is one that we would all want for our students and children: stress reduction, boosts to working memory, improved focus, and more flexibility in challenging situations. In 2013, in an article published by the National Institute of Health in Social Cognative and Affective Neuroscience, research on the use of meditation was reported to improve emotional stability, supporting and building upon the documented research of its benefits. This was further supported by neuroscience research that showed increased serotonin levels in those that practiced meditation. So, while incorporating mindfulness as skill has been a trend, it is also very much supported by nationally recognized research.

Knowing this, I have continued to listen and research what experts are saying, often trying out techniques to improve my own mindfulness. Slotnick has recommended phone apps like Meditation Studio to our students. Dr. Helen Riess, who spoke recently at Brimmer about her book, The Empathy Effect, suggested HeadSpace, and those with an Apple Watch or Fitbit are likely familiar with the built in mindfulness activities focused on controlled breathing and reducing one’s heartrate. I know that I have found these to be useful from time to time, but more importantly, many students have incorporated them into their daily routines to help manage stress.

I fear that when we talk about meditation and mindfulness we often lose Apple Piepeople once we use those terms. For some people, meditation and breathing exercises do not work. What do we tell those who cannot connect in this way? During Thanksgiving preparation last week, while I was preparing my apple pie, peeling apples, slicing them, and rolling out the dough, I found myself experiencing a heightened awareness of my own senses. During that process, I recognized that I was experiencing what I was missing during those yoga exercises. It turns out that baking, and also sports activity, that requires intense focus and mimics the effects of meditation.

Pyschology Today writes that mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. When we are mindful we carefully observe our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” As we continue to venture into a world that moves quickly and we encounter incredible amounts of information at unprecedented speeds, we are going to find mindfulness activities will grow in importance. Whether it be through meditation, breathing exercises, baking, or shooting free throws on the basketball court, it is important that we help our students and children develop these skills.

Photo Credit: Business Improvement Architects