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What Members with Food Allergies Wish Their Ward Members Knew

On a chilly January evening in 2017, a joint youth activity was in full swing in Herriman, Utah. Guys, gals, basketball, and food—it was the quintessential gathering of LDS youth. Fourteen-year-old Tanner Sorensen stayed late. A leader walked around the gym offering the last cookies to the stragglers.

“Do these cookies have peanuts?” Tanner asked. He always asked.

“Not sure, probably not.” So Tanner grabbed a cookie.

Terry, Tanner’s father, was also at the activity, but when it was time to go, he didn’t see Tanner. So he headed home, a short walk from the church.

When Terry got home he could hear shouting coming from the house. He walked into a frantic scene of his wife, Jen, hovering over Tanner’s lifeless body, on the phone with 911, blood everywhere. Tanner was not breathing and he had no pulse. He had run home. He arrived swollen and struggling to breathe. He collapsed and cut his head in the fall. Jen had tried to administer an inhaler, but the medicine puffed back out of Tanner’s closed throat. She tried epinephrine three times. The first two devices failed. The third device finally worked.

But it was too late.

Paramedics tried to revive him. They transported him to a nearby hospital where they were miraculously able to get a heartbeat. He was flown to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, but the physicians there only confirmed what Terry and Jen already knew.

It had been too long.

They kept Tanner on life support long enough to express their love and say their goodbyes. He passed away with his mother snuggled next to him and his father holding his hand.

There were peanuts in the cookies. Tanner was allergic to peanuts.

Food Allergies and Church

Approximately 4 percent of Americans have a food allergy and studies estimate that up to 8 percent of U.S. children have a food allergy. [1] In a ward of 200, that’s about 8 people, and in a Primary of 50, that’s 4 children. More than 170 foods have been identified as potential allergens, but the “Big 8” are the majority of food allergies: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. [2]

While families with food allergies have come to anticipate accommodation at school, on airlines, and in restaurants, LDS families with food allergies report a mixed reception in their efforts to educate ward members and request accommodations at church.

“Individuals and parents of children with food allergies are often put in a spot to where we have to speak up to keep ourselves and our children safe, and we can look like we are overprotective, overreacting parents,” points out Julie Alverson, co-founder and president of Utah Food Allergy Network, a member of the Church, and the mother of children with food allergies. “But this is a life-threatening disease, not a lifestyle choice.”

That message is hard for some to swallow.

“We all eat food, so it is sometimes hard for people to understand it can be dangerous,” says Jonathan Olson, a DO who specializes in allergy, asthma, and immunology in the Salt Lake Valley. “But it is as serious, if not more serious, than someone having a stroke or heart attack in church. A person having an allergic reaction could die more quickly than a person having a heart attack.”

Knowing some of the challenges those with food allergies face at church can help us be more sensitive and make it a safe place for everyone. Here are a few things to consider.

Cutting Down on the Treats

Latter-day Saints love their food. “Food and church are very connected in this culture,” observes Alverson. “Most activities are centered around food.”

The bread used in the ordinance of the sacrament itself can be dangerous for some, but sacrament meeting in general has moved beyond a baggie of Cheerios to keep a toddler occupied. Today families might bring anything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bags of trail mix to cookies, crackers, and a wide range of other foods to enjoy during sacrament meeting.

Sacrament meeting is often followed up with treats in Primary, Sunday School, Young Women and Young Men, and maybe even a chocolate in Relief Society.

That’s to say nothing of after-church mingles, ward pot lucks, chili cook-offs, and refreshments at activities that no amount of blessing will make safe for some (or healthy for others).

Natalie Slaugh from Sunnyvale, California, does not have food allergies herself but has dealt with others’ allergies through her callings. When she was Relief Society President, a woman expressed concern for her diabetic mother after a treat was handed out in every meeting that day.

“I made me think: we don’t need to be fed so many treats to keep us at church, do we?” Slaugh says.

Suzanne, who lives in Michigan and is allergic to several foods, visited a Catholic service with friends and noticed there was no food during the service. “Sitting there in the sanctuary, I just couldn’t picture a family sharing a bag of trail mix or eating sandwiches.”

When she asked her friends about it, they were surprised and assured her people either left the sanctuary to eat or didn’t bring food in the first place.

“I think it would be kind of cool if we could keep our chapels as food-free as possible,” Suzanne says. “I have had more allergic reactions at church than any other place.”

Making the Sacrament Safe

The first challenge for many members with allergies is to make the ordinance of the sacrament safe. Members with wheat, milk, soy, and even nut or seed allergies must confirm the bread used is safe for them to partake of each week.

Many members provide their own bread or crackers to be blessed and passed. Often members put their cracker or a pre-torn piece of bread in a condiment cup with a lid to avoid cross-contamination. Some wards have switched to exclusively gluten-free bread. But members with allergies still have to address cross-contamination, which can happen through touching other bread being prepared or through using bread trays shared by multiple wards.

“Our ward has switched to the cup and water tray system [see tip two below], which works very well,” says Stephanie Loud, who has celiac disease. She lives in Liberty, Utah, and several members of her ward do not eat gluten, so a gluten-free tray is prepared for them.

If there is question, members with allergies simply do not take the sacrament.

Priesthood holders can and should work together with members affected by food allergies to make the ordinance safe. Here are some tips to get started:

1. Wash your hands before preparing or passing the sacrament. (Hand sanitizer does not remove allergens from hands.)

2. Avoid cross-contamination with other sacrament bread. Safe bread should be kept separate and handled first before contact is made with other bread. Alternately, safe bread or crackers can be brought to church in a sealed baggie or a condiment cup with a lid. Use a separate, washed tray for allergy-free bread, or use water cups with bread in them in a water tray to avoid allergy-free bread coming in contact with other sacrament bread.

3. You can allow priesthood members with allergies to participate in preparing and blessing the sacrament in ways that are safe and comfortable for them. For some people with allergies, reactions can happen with skin contact and through breathing the allergen. Some can bless the sacrament but not break it. Others can pass the sacrament but not be at the table as it’s prepared. Work directly with the person with the allergies to determine the best way to allow them to participate in the ordinance.

Educating All Ages

Unfortunately, not everyone understands the need for accommodations. Francesca’s 14-year-old daughter has a severe milk allergy. In order to make the sacrament safe, she provides a piece of bread in a condiment cup each week. One Sunday, an older gentleman was blessing the sacrament, and when she delivered her daughter’s bread, the brother refused to bless it because it was in a “closed vessel.” He insisted she open the cup. She explained in tears that the potential for cross-contamination made it too dangerous. The situation was not resolved until the bishop intervened.

“The younger generation all have friends and students in their classes with severe food allergies, but many in the older generation have never known anyone with a food allergy,” Suzanne points out.

Suzanne has been touched by the sensitivity of the priests in her ward. “I have overheard one young man advocating for me and my ‘special’ sacrament bread,” she says. “It set the tone for other young men to do the same, and I am so humbled by the young men who have made it safe for me to take the sacrament.”

One Sunday in particular, the priests blessing the sacrament did not send her bread to be passed to her because they noticed it had been contaminated with the other sacrament bread.

“They found me after sacrament meeting, explained what happened, and told me they had received special permission from the bishop to pass the sacrament to me in a classroom,” Suzanne says. “I cried as they blessed and passed me the sacrament in that small room. I could feel the Savior’s love so strongly and His knowledge of how much I had struggled with this challenge.”

Practicing Christlike Behavior When It Comes to Food

While members are most often willing to make the sacrament safe, it’s the food everywhere else some find hard to give up.

While her daughter was in Primary, Francesca continually tried to educate teachers and leaders in their Draper, Utah, ward about the severity of her daughter’s milk allergy. She offered to provide food and lists of safe snacks. She asked if Sharing Time and Singing Time could be free of treats. But it was an ongoing struggle. One Primary music leader suggested Francesca’s daughter “just get over” her anxiety about food in Primary. Another Primary teacher decided to solve the allergy problem by sending the 6-year-old girl to sit in the hallway whenever she brought cupcakes for the class, rather than allowing Francesca to provide safe cupcakes for everyone.

“This was so hurtful on many levels,” Francesca recalls. “Instead of teaching the other children to ‘be like Jesus’ and to care about each other enough to include everyone, she taught them to exclude my daughter.”

Megan’s 14-year-old son has a peanut allergy. Her children were recently in a combined youth Sunday School class with a new teacher in their Washington State ward. The teacher broke open a bag of peanut butter cups. “All three of my kids said, ‘You can’t eat those in here,’ but they passed them out anyway,” Megan says. “My son left the room after being taunted with a peanut butter cup by another boy his age.”

This incident was a final blow after a long battle trying to help ward members understand the severity of his allergy.

“If I didn’t know the Church was true, we would never be going back,” Megan says.

The spiritual impact of food allergies for these families is real. They sometimes find it difficult to reconcile the teachings of the Savior with the way they are being treated at church—because of food.

“We are supposed to be teaching our kids to be Christlike,” says Megan. “It is disappointing to have these things happen at church where you have hopes of being cared about and fellowshipped.”

Francesca agrees. “My daughter has a hard time believing people actually want her at church because of experiences like those in Primary.” After coming home early from a Young Women activity because of unsafe conditions due to food, Francesca’s daughter told her, “They have had a relationship with milk longer than with me, so I guess they care more about having milk at the activity than having me there.”

Alverson’s son has skipped temple trips with the youth because of the food that would be involved. “All we want is for our children to be safe and be included where they can gain a testimony,” says Alverson. “It’s better to exclude the food and not the child.”

Suzanne’s husband, Chris, who is a convert, puts it another way: “If I can give up beer, you can give up eating nuts at church.”

Working Together

The spiritual impact is just as real when a person with allergies is remembered, included, and accommodated.

“Showing willingness to make a safe environment at church for people with severe allergies is also showing a willingness to bear one another’s burdens,” says Suzanne. It’s not easy for those with allergies to ask to be accommodated, but it’s easier when they know their ward members will react with loving concern and a desire to help.

For example, Francesca’s new ward was planning an overnight youth conference, which required a great deal of planning and preparation to ensure her daughter could safely attend. The Young Men President personally took on the responsibility of making it safe for her daughter, and Francesca helped plan a safe menu and shop for food. The Young Men even power washed the scout griddles before cooking on them.

“It was wonderful!” says Francesca. “I cried and felt God’s love through their kind, inclusive actions. So did my daughter.”

There is no Church-wide policy on food at church. Lds.org simply states: “Counsel with your priesthood leader for direction.” [3] So when ward members have allergies, the burden to make church a safe place is shared by the family and ward alike.

Dr. Olson suggests parents hold an “emergency preparedness” meeting with leaders and teachers—and hold them again and again with new leaders and new teachers.

“Create an action plan. Teach them to recognize symptoms. Have teachers practice using an epinephrine injector. That’s a good way of bringing home the severity of the situation,” he recommends. “By creating an action plan, you empower the adults. Every single person involved with the child becomes an advocate.”

“I was 100 percent reliant on the parents for guidelines and support,” says Caroline Wright of Salt Lake City, who served as a Primary president to a child with a peanut allergy. She acknowledges that it took follow up and reminders. “I was completely ignorant of the catastrophic consequences not only of ingestion but of exposure on any level. But they included the fact that he could die. I know this sounds dramatic, but it completely changed the way I viewed his allergy. It made me want to do everything in my power to protect him and lead by example.”

Where to Go From Here

The Sorensens don’t blame anyone for their son’s death. In fact, they have felt miracles large and small throughout this life-changing event.

They hope one of the miracles will be to change awareness of food allergies, especially in the LDS Church.

“All it takes is a second for people to lose their lives,” Terry emphasizes. “It’s not that these kids are irresponsible. It’s not that they aren’t paying attention. But they are kids. It just takes one second of letting your guard down.”

That one second cost Tanner his life.

“People think it’s a lifestyle thing,” reiterates, Tanner’s mom, Jen. “But it’s not a lifestyle choice. It’s a life-threatening allergy.”

And an opportunity.

“God gives us all opportunities to be kind and to learn to be like him by allowing us to be a miracle for someone in their suffering,” says Francesca. “Sometimes God heals someone with a disability to show forth His glorious works, and sometimes He allows someone to keep their disability because He wants His works to be made manifest in how others treat that person.”

For additional resources, check out www.utahfoodallergy.orgwww.foodallergy.org

[1] www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/Final-FARE-Food-Allergy-Facts-Statistics.pdf

[2] www.foodallergy.org/sites/default/files/migrated-files/file/Final-FARE-Food-Allergy-Facts-Statistics.pdf
[3] www.lds.org/callings/primary/leader-resources/frequently-asked-questions?lang=eng#food-in

Lead image from Shutterstock

Lisa Ann Thomson is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is allergic to tree nuts and her son is allergic to peanuts. From a hospitalization on her mission to dashing out of sacrament meeting with her son having an allergic reaction, she has plenty of experience with food allergies at church.

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