Consuming Normalcy? Allergy-Friendly Food Products and Social Life

At the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference last weekend, it really struck me how certain kinds of retailers are deeply integrated into the food allergy world. In particular, manufacturers of snacks, packaged foods, and apps that help people choose between such food products were well represented. It got me thinking about the role that buying food allergy friendly products plays in this world.

Can you tell which packages are empty because I had already devoured them?

For now, I’ll summarize some initial thoughts. I have a lot of work to do to tease some of the issues here apart. For one, most of the talks and offline chatter that helped me think about the social significance of food allergy friendly products focused on their impact on families with small kids rather than adults with food allergies. That’s also what I focus on here.

In the coming weeks, as I reach out to some of my readers and new friends who were at the conference, I look forward to having some interesting conversations on this topic!

Seeing the wide array of corporate sponsors when I first entered the conference space – from drug companies, to food manufacturers, to companies developing apps that direct users to packaged foods that are safe for them – initially provoked a critique of consumer culture. Is living with food allergies really just about buying the right things? Is there, perhaps, even an element of showing off?

Already having some knowledge about how sincerely food allergy parents and advocates are working to improve life for people with food allergies, I knew this couldn’t be the whole story – and probably not even the primary one. I couldn’t pass such quick judgment. I had to listen carefully to what people were saying in order to understand the view from on the ground. Understanding the perspectives of people in the culture you’re learning about is an important commitment of anthropology, just as much as interpreting and, sometimes, critiquing a way of life.

The first thing to consider is that so much of social life in US is built around consumption and consumer choice. We like having choice about what to buy to eat, what to wear, what to drive, what kind of home to live in. Whether you like it or not, it is the de facto backdrop behind life with food allergies and allergy management. Moreover, parents in particular are used to purchasing things for their kids. As I was reminded by one of my mentors this week, the equation of “kids” and “buying stuff” starts before a child is even born, with the creation of a baby registry, and continues throughout their childhood and adolescence (and often beyond). A historian, this mentor also reminded me that the connection between mothering and buying products with which to mother goes back at least to the early 20th century. Having products that are safe and healthy for food allergic kids, then, allows families to participate in this aspect of social life in the United States. Having the choice to buy – whether one takes advantage of it or not – is a way for parents to feel “normal” again after a food allergy diagnosis.

Another side to consider is how such products may relieve the stress a restricted diet places on a child. Buying allergen free products makes it possible to send a child to school with a full, normal lunch bag. It makes it possible to send snacks in for school events so that a food allergic kid can enjoy the same snacks as other kids in the class. It’s easier to recommend safe snacks to other parents that they can have around when a food allergy friend comes over to visit. And it makes this possible without chaining a parent to the kitchen all afternoon to bake specialty food items from scratch. This seems to be an especially important point to consider right now, as the food allergy community starts to pay more attention to the social and emotional well-being of kids with food allergies. Being able to buy safe snacks helps kids feel normal, too.

Through my research and contact with people in the food allergy world, I’ve also learned that at a practical level, such products can take time pressure off caretakers (especially mothers). In most two-parent families, both parents need to have some kind of job out of financial necessity. Even among the mothers I speak to who scale back or take time off after their child is diagnosed with food allergies, eventually the moment comes when they must return to work. Add into the mix the extra time required for complex medical care that comes with food allergies and the fact that many mothers end up supervising school and extracurriculars so that their children have normal social lives, and there’s not much time left for cooking allergy-safe foods. Especially allergy-safe desserts and snack. Convenience foods, including those that are free from allergies, are sometimes what makes it possible for parents to hold it all together. I think there is a theme to think about here, concerning how squeezed parents (especially mothers) are for time nowadays. But for now, suffice it to say that allergy-friendly products – both prepared foods and apps that help users select foods – help out by easing some of the time pressures that go along with parenting a child with a chronic medical condition in the modern age.

My project is about seeking to understand the community first, and to interpret later on. Eventually I’ll have to find points of connection between the view from on the ground and the view from above – the “critical” view I outlined at the very top. But for now I want to learn more, to hear more about the importance of being able to buy tailored, safe products to food allergy parents and individuals.

What do you think? What impact has the growing availability of allergy-friendly or “free-from” foods had on your life, your time budgeting, and your child’s social life?

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