Poison Peanuts and Killer Cupcakes

Nearly 8% of U.S. kids have a food allergy. It makes life complicated. And sometimes scary.
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Food allergy support group leader Eli Waldman with his successor, Arlington 8th-grader Grace Joseffer. Photo by Erick Gibson

Eli Waldman, a senior at Yorktown High School, has celiac disease—he can’t eat anything made with wheat, rye, barley, malt or oats—and a severe peanut allergy. When he was younger, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of interrogating his friends’ parents about their cooking methods: Were there traces of wheat in the pot they used? How about on the knives or other utensils? Any peanuts or peanut products in their kitchens?

In fifth grade, he remembers a classmate “thought it would be funny to chase me around the room with a peanut cookie and try to put it in my mouth,” he says. (That student landed in the principal’s office.) “I was mortified.”

In science, Waldman couldn’t work on a project constructing a tectonic plate with cookies. “I just remember feeling really isolated and ostracized from other kids,” he says. “At that age, everybody just wants to fit in.”

Waldman found a peer support group at Children’s National Hospital, where the kids exchanged tips on topics such as how to question waiters and waitresses about ingredients and how to handle food at summer camp.

Inspired, he decided in eighth grade to start a similar group for students in Arlington schools. “I wanted to help those younger kids avoid the kinds of experiences I had, to show them you can still go out to lunch with friends,” he says. “I really wanted to do the best job I could to make sure elementary school kids could get a head start on living an active, fun and productive childhood and not limit themselves.”

The groups typically meet once a month at Nottingham and Discovery elementary schools in Arlington (kids who attend other schools are welcome), and there are no adults in the room—only student facilitators. Waldman leads discussions about how to manage food allergies while traveling, or during holidays like Halloween and Christmas. He teaches participants how to read food labels, and they act out scenarios about what to do if an adult offers them food they can’t eat. Once he graduates—he’s heading to Stanford University this fall—he’ll hand the lead facilitator role over to group member Grace Joseffer, a rising freshman at Washington-Liberty High School. [Editor’s note: The support groups are currently on hiatus while the governor’s coronavirus stay-at-home order remains in effect, and will likely resume in the fall.]

Categories: Parents & Kids