Presenter: Katherine Lodge
Guest: Amy Wicker
Guest Bio: Amy started a new online resource for millions of families around the world who are impacted by food allergies. Allergy Safe Travel is a website for people who are travelling and they need to find hotels with kitchens or restaurants, health food stores, and other medical facilities.
Health Professional Radio
Katherine: Thanks for listening to Health Professional Radio today. With us today, we have Amy Wicker. She is the mother of two daughters, one of which is anaphylactic to milk, eggs and nuts, and she knows firsthand what it’s like to be a parent of a child who experiences severe food allergies. Amy started a new online resource for millions of families around the world who are impacted by food allergies. AllergySafeTravel is a website for people who are travelling and they need to find hotels with kitchens or restaurants, health food stores, and other medical facilities. And joining us is Amy, welcome.
Amy Wicker: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, I appreciate it.
Katherine: What prompted you to start AllergySafeTravel?
Amy: You know, it’s not an easy thing to travel with someone who has severe food allergies. I used to be an avid traveller having lived abroad before, and I always thought I’d be able to do that with my own children. But when I had my daughter in 2004, it became pretty apparent pretty quickly that travel was going to be a bit more labour-intensive. So, every time I plan a trip, I would spend hours and hours online researching hotels with kitchens, health food stores, medical facilities, restaurants, were there any restaurants that could possibly accommodate us.
So, every time, no joke, every time I picked up the phone I’m like, “How many other people are making this same phone call?” And wouldn’t it be great if we had kind of a central repository or a place for all of this information that we could all contribute to? So, that was really how the idea for AllergySafeTravel was born.
Katherine: Great, and so you obviously have successfully travelled in the last decade or so with your daughter. How challenging was it to find things like restaurants for you to eat at?
Amy: At this point in time, I would say that 90% of the time, I’m still preparing and taking her meals with us. She’s anaphylactic to any trace amount of dairy, and that’s really hard to avoid. And I’m so concerned about cross-contamination in the kitchen. So, nine times out of ten, I’m preparing her meals in the hotel, in the kitchen in our room, and then I’m taking it out to the restaurant. My oldest daughter and I are gluten-free, so we will always try to find the restaurants, the gluten-free menus, who tend to be a little more aware of gluten allergies and that kind of thing.
So, that’s really how we handle the food situation. For the most part, I would say today, most places you call are aware of food allergies, and you can tell by the line of questioning whether they really get it or not. My comfort level really largely depends on the conversation that I have with the people at the restaurant. And that’s why I think this website can be a great resource, because if there have been five or six families, they’ve all had great success in eating safely at a restaurant, then I’m going to seriously consider that restaurant, and think, you know, they can do it.
So, that’s kind of what we look at.
Katherine: Right. Getting to the online resource, how can people contribute to this? Can they email you? And how do you get the information up there?
Amy: I actually have a couple of people who are helping me research cities throughout the United States right now. My goal is to have one coordinator in every state, so I’m getting ready to send out an announcement about that. We would like to expand internationally as soon as possible, because most of the email and queries I get from people have to deal with international and overseas travel. For us, it’s like a black hole.
It’s very difficult to find information on those destination cities. We need to find those hotels or condos that have kitchens, we need to find out is it possible to find safe foods in the area. So, what I am doing, I’ve actually connected with an international au pair agency, and we are talking about the possibility of expanding internationally quicker with their resources, and using their offices around the world to get the word out about AllergySafeTravel and what we’re trying to do.
I am collecting international travel information right now, so if listeners in Australia have great recommendations, email me at [email protected] and I am collecting that information. And once we’re ready to roll out the international stuff, I will make sure that that information is included. I think one of the biggest challenges for a lot of us with the nut allergies is flying, and I wish I could say that the US airlines are doing better. But it’s extremely difficult to fly now versus even two to three years ago.
My daughter was on a flight three years ago, and there was a woman three rows ahead of us who opened a large can of mixed nuts. They became airborne, and she inhaled that and she started to have a reaction on board the flight. Now this was at about nine o’clock in the morning, and I was surprised because all the advice says, take the first flight, an early flight out in the morning, there’s less of a likelihood that people are going to be eating nuts on the flight.
And so I really didn’t feel getting onto the plane that I needed to make a big deal and make an announcement because I thought, ‘really, who’s eating nuts at nine o’clock in the morning?’ So, once we had that incident, I immediately hit the flight attendants’ light, they came, I said, “We’ve got to find the nuts on board this flight.” They immediately found the woman, she put the nuts away, I mitigated the situation. I gave my daughter medication, her inhaler, prayed for the best, everything was okay.
But every subsequent flight we were on, you know, the flight attendants, when I told them what had happened, they were more than willing to make an announcement and to help us, essentially. We went to fly about a year-and-a-half, two years ago, and I was kind of expecting that same level of compassion and service and accommodation. And the major air carriers here in the United States will no longer make announcements. It’s really frustrating.
I’ve been told, and I felt like I was on a comedy show called Saturday Night Live here in the States, but the woman said to me, “We cannot deny our first-class passengers their warm nuts. If you don’t like it, you can get off the plane.” That’s kind of the attitude we’re dealing with right now, which is very unfortunate. So, I’ve been reaching out to some attorneys with the airlines and trying to get them to understand that airborne issues are real.
We did just have a situation here in May in the United States, where a woman went into anaphylaxis on board a flight from Florida to California. They had to make an emergency landing in Missouri, and the flight attendants knew about her arrival. The family had asked for an announcement, they refused, saying, “We’ve had people on board flights with nut allergies, it’s fine.”
She went into anaphylaxis, they landed, she had to be in the ICU unit for two days at a hospital. She’s now suing United Airlines because they failed to make an announcement for her. So, it’s not an easy thing to fly. I think most of us drive everywhere we go.
Katherine: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about international travel. It just makes it so much harder because unless you cook everything from scratch, you don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to read the ingredients especially if it’s in a different language.
Amy: Correct. They do have – there are a number of different companies that have translation cards, which are very, very useful, so I would recommend those. And there are also some apps that you can get for your mobile devices that can translate things for you and help you communicate those allergies.
Katherine: Right, that’s really handy, good tip as well. I was reading on your website about F.I.T. City establishments. Now can you tell us what they are, because I’m not familiar, and I don’t think Australian listeners are familiar with F.I.T. City establishments.
Amy: Well, this is a new initiative that they’re starting here in Chicago, and it came out of the US Department of Health and Services. We’re really trying to make an effort to get people to be more mindful about their activity level and what they’re eating. So, this is a new initiative starting in Chicago, so we’re going out talking to restaurants about the need to offer low-cal, healthier food options and food fare. It’s really a great connection for me because I’m bringing that food allergy component and aspect to the group, which I think has been very helpful.
So, it’s kind of in its infancy right now, and we expect it to be growing over the years. But we have quite a number, about 65, 70 restaurants so far in the Chicago area who have signed up and who have committed to offering healthier options. And my goal is really now, you know, we approach them from the healthier food standpoint, and then we can go in and say, ‘okay, let’s look at how do we handle a food allergic guest who might come through the door, so let’s take it to that next level’. So I’m working with F.I.T. City to make that happen.
Katherine: Right. Okay, very interesting. Now, a parenting question.
Katherine: Your daughter, she is allergic to nuts and dairy, and also eggs, is that right?
Katherine: So, I mean, there are so many foods that she can’t eat off the shelf, because if you think of baked goods and chocolate bars and, there’s so many things that in a way she misses out on, additionally if she’s invited to, say, a children’s birthday party or something like that. As a parent, how do you get around there in that situation and make sure she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on all of the treats?
Amy: I have to say that we’re lucky that we live in this day and age, because every day there are more and more specialty products that come out on the market that are free of the ‘Top Eight’. And so, we really try to embrace those companies and support those companies that are doing that. But before the school year starts, I am always stocking up on mixes that I know she likes. I’m always preparing things and throwing them in the freezer for that last-minute birthday party.
At school every year, at the beginning of the year, I have a small plastic container, and I will put all of her safe snacks in that container that go to school with her. So, if for some reason there’s a celebration at school or whatever, she always has something safe that she can eat. So, we have a lot of options, and right now in terms of the dairy, that’s our biggest issue and that’s what she’s most sensitive to. We have so many options now on the market. We now have coconut milk ice cream, we have soy milk ice cream.
You know, it’s just amazing what’s coming out of the marketplace right now. She really doesn’t feel like she’s really missing out on much.
Katherine: Right, and that’s good to hear.
Katherine: And you’re right, maybe 10, 15 years ago for even people with gluten intolerances, a lot of the baked goods or whatever was not that nice. But as time has passed, there’s quite a lot of tasty treats out there.
Amy: There are.
Katherine: Yeah. Well thank you so much for joining us today and sharing with us some travel tips for highly allergic children and adults as well. For those of you that would like to know more, please go to AllergySafeTravel.com. Thanks for your time, Amy.
Amy: Yes, thanks for having me, I appreciate it. I look forward to getting all that information in Australia.
Katherine: Thank you.